Cosmogramma (Warp, 05.2010)
For: J Dilla, Charles Mingus, Four Tet
Byline: Legendary producer takes jazz head on, but never loses any of his beat heavy production. I think my neck is broken.
Three important events happened last week that have a direct relationship to each other. 1) At the ripe old age of 25, I graduated from college. I know that most of my colleagues of this age have already graduated and are working real people jobs or are completing graduate degrees or PHDs. That is cool, but cut me some slack, I took two years off and graduated with two degrees. 2) Flying Lotus released his latest album since 2008's genre-defining masterpiece Los Angeles. 3) I acquired a skateboard. I am going to learn to skateboard and be a skateboarder. Don't judge me, this is the form my quarter-life crisis has finally taken. After growing a pretty nasty pseudo-beard and getting addicted to Zelda for a week, I should be so lucky that this is what it has amounted to.
So, what does this have to do with Steven Ellison dropping his most anticipated album to date? Well, graduating college hastened my onset quarter-life freakout, and with that brought my new passion for learning to skateboard. And how can you skateboard without a dope instrumental hip-hop soundtrack? I can understand if you cry "foul" here. Ellison's compositions are near academic studies in beat composition blurring the edges between jazz and hip-hop right? Surely, the musical heir to Alice Coletrane would never sink so low to have his work accompany something so pedestrian as landing my first kickflip, right? I doubt FlyLo would think so. For as awe-inspiring as Cosmogramma is (and oh my, it is) there is a free-flowing playfulness throughout the entire album, a sense that Ellison, while a structuralist at heart, has no problem taking his music back to the baseline: the beats. Cosmogramma's beats are never what they appear to be on the surface. Something as straightforward as rhythm is opened up and unraveled the deeper we get. The syncopated "Computer Face" has fractured half-beats and hiccuping sitar lines that run just about every way but with the propulsive rhythm line. "And the World Laughs with You" features a largely improvised and totally buried vocal contribution by Thom Yorke. Instead of giving top-billing to one of the biggest rock stars in the world, he simply packages Yorke's voice as another instrument, giving it little more spotlight than the descending, squiggly synth lines. I think this says something about this album, as incredible as Ellison and his guests are, everything is auxiliary to the beats. Ellison's left-field vocal samples, twinkling piano lines, and world-hopping instruments are simply there to augment the beats at the core of the compositions. Even if those beats are as far into outerspace as the Cat's Eye Nebula.
I am not an expert on jazz by any means (any jazz related questions should be directed to our resident musical theorist/history genius Craw'z) but from what little I know I can easily point out FlyLo's mission to bring hip-hop and jazz into some unifying theme. The deep hits of an upright bass take the aural rigidness of programmed beats and gives them a deeply organic "swinging" feel that permeates the album. Playing his influences and mentors close to his chest is what makes Cosmogramma so thrilling, but the way that FlyLo never lets himself take these too seriously is what makes Cosmogramma such a game changing masterpiece. These are song-songs and this is an album that feels like an album, with a traceable arc of post-jazz funkiness finely diced by the scalpel of dubstep's chopped percussion, laced with the playful wit of streetwise Tennyson. All this while being one of the most accessible and easily loved albums of the year, worthy of the aplomb of austere music aficionados as well as choice guest spots on the next Shorty's skate vid. So, if you see some dude cruising the streets of SLC unsteadily and on a skateboard, first get out of his way, second, realize that he is probably deeply absorbed by some liquid beat by 2010 Flying Lotus. Just wait until I turn 50...BMX bikes? Agressive inline skating? Yikes.