Review Summary: I need to know you're out there, I need to know you're listening
Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, has had a huge impact on the instrumental hip-hop. His willingness to go out on a limb and push boundaries has resulted in him paving the way to success for similar acts, especially artists like Daedalus, Gaslamp Killer, and Samiyam who are on the Brainfeeder label. His constant progression and evolution continues with "Cosmogramma" and with it FlyLo brings forth another new style, yet one that's still rooted in the scene he's helped ignite. The album shows that not only does he draw heavily from the past - mostly from the large jazz inspiration his great aunt Alice Cotrane has had on him - but that he's also constantly evolving his unique and influential style.
Jazz has always played a part in Ellison's music, but "Cosmogramma" really brings forth a sound that draws heavily from free jazz. "Pickled!" has a frantic bassline that arpeggiates its way up and down a shuffling beat that we've come to expect from FlyLo. "German Haircut" is almost pure jazz, from the smooth saxophone work to the uneven drums, though it doesn't mesh well with the swirling, beautiful atmosphere Ellison tries to create on the song. It's a slight misstep on an album that otherwise provides a solid listening experience. And it's just that, an experience. The album flows briskly through the tracks, and it goes through it all in what seems to be much shorter than its almost 50-minute running time would suggest.
Despite a fond love for jazz, the album weaves in and out of numerous styles that have all been largely influential on FlyLo, and "Cosmogramma" has an incredible range of sounds because of it. "Recoiled" gives us a dirty bassline, yet the harps and subtle vocal sampling give it a very warm feeling. The feeling of warmth also comes from the fact that FlyLo recruited several prominent jazz musicians, ranging from bassist Thundercat to saxophonist (and Ellison's counsin) Ravi Coltrane, to write and record the instruments that make up the bulk of the album. "...And The World Laughs With You," with Thom Yorke (whose appearance makes this one of the many highlights of the album), gives us a prominent IDM sound, though one that's always subtely found its way into FlyLo's sound. No matter what style is present on the album, it fits in the context. While there is an incredible amount of variety to the sounds, there's nothing that feels out of place or unnatural, even with "Table Tennis" sampling of (what else?) ping-pong balls. All of this goes without mentioning what is easily the highlight of the album, and what might be the highlight of FlyLo's entire career - "Do The Astral Plane." It's 4 minutes of pure bliss. The strings are beautiful and the buzzing synthline that drops in and out is infectious. Beginning with scatting and melding into a disco beat, it's a constantly evolving track that builds up into what could be considered the climax of the entire album.
While jazz might play a huge role in "Cosmogramma," there's one major influence in FlyLo's tunes that has always been present: Los Angeles. Ellison makes it no secret that his upbringing in Los Angeles is something that's found its way into his music (if not from the fact that his second album is titled "Los Angeles"). The people of Los Angeles are constantly changing and moving on from trend to trend, and that idea Ellison has adapted to his craft. He is constantly reinventing his music, in the same way the city he's lived in most of his life has been constantly changing.
"Cosmogramma" is a very ambitious album. At times it's self-indulgent, and it sets the bar quite high. While it misses at points, these moments are few and far between. One problem with the record is that at times it can be quite unaccessable. With the wide range of sounds and effects, it's incredibly hard to take in with anything less than a few listens. There's an incredible amount of depth to be heard, though, and it's not surprising considering Ellison has said the album is a "headphone" kind of record. While it may be one of the most ambitious albums of the year, it succeeds in almost every way. If anything, Steven Ellison has mastered the craft of creating an album that's going to be continually influencing new artists, even while drawing upon many influences myself. This makes it easily one of the best albums of the decade thus far, and that's really saying something.