Even the biggest fans of Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison) have no idea what to expect at a live show. Through listening to any one of his five records, you get the impression of a boundary bending electronic producer with serious sensibilities in any and all genres. He has a sound, but one that is utterly free. His latest, October release You’re Dead, is a cavernous, 20-song, 38-minute maze of free jazz, progressive funk, and psychedelic electronics. The stage rendering of You’re Dead, though, is a wholly new experience from anything Flying Lotus has waxed—analogous only by vague, ill-defining descriptors like ambitious, mesmerizing, groundbreaking, etc.
It’s not a light show and it’s not a video: it’s a hypnotic display of 3D visual effects.
This is going to be very hard to picture—consult the slide show above and the video below—but bear with me. The stage is set up with two screens, one at the foreground, one in the background. A masked, suit-and-tie attired Flying Lotus is standing at his computer in the middle. His mask has LED eyes, allowing us to follow his line of sight through the dizzying display of shapes floating in front of him. Worlds appear and disappear. We soar through CGI-rendered tunnels. We’re tripping through hallucinatory, chromatic warrens. We’re dead, remember, so this must be the path to the afterlife, or this is the afterlife.
The performance is as much a visual experience as it is a musical one. It’s stimulating, at times overwhelmingly, with competing pulsating beats and vertiginous visuals, demanding concentration.
Ellison played a far reach of material during his hour and a half set, at times recognizable instrumentals, as well as obscured remixes and reconstructions. He’s a prolific force in hip-hop, with features, production credits, and alter-egos, allowing him a deep range of material to draw from or even reference. He’s got unreleased b-sides with Chance the Rapper, cutting room floor scraps of Kendrick Lamar verses, and exclusive rips from his Grand Theft Auto V radio station that all make it into his set list.
He peers out from behind the front screen from time to time to perform clips from his rapping cartoon alter-ego Captain Murphy. Or, he raps from behind, with the image of the bulky and bearded (evil Rick Ross-looking) Captain projected on screen. It’s an illuminating, fully realized angle to watch Captain Murphy from, able to see both the artist and imagined character in synch with one another.
It’s that balance that makes Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead performance a perfect representation of his persona. It’s the ability to marry his mysterious, elusive nature with the extravagant metaphysical world that he creates, or the villainous comic book rapper he embodies.
You don’t go to Flying Lotus live for simply the music; you go for the multisensory experience. In the same way Kanye’s Yeezus tour was lauded for it’s lavish set and indulgent narrative, so, too, should Flying Lotus’s attention to visual detail. The animated component is daring and innovative, allowing his live set to be a full-bodied, enchanting jaunt.
I may have been dead will witnessing FlyLo inside the Roseland, but outside those doors I felt electric—perfectly alive.