Flying Lotus Will Make You Believe In Magic

On stage, FlyLo’s beats breathe instead of bump. They’re alive. He’s alive. He is the rabbit who leads to a place of magic.
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"You know, I have synesthesia. I can see sound in front of me." —Kanye West

The Donald Glover-written, Hiro Murai-directed 2013 short film Clapping For The Wrong Reasons is a fluid, day-in-the-life adventure that refuses to answer the question of "Why?" Events unfold with the surrealism of a fever dream. No one is alarmed by Abella Anderson floating around the mansion like a friendly ghost. Or the fact Glover’s character, named “The Boy,” pulls a gold tooth from his nose with a casual air. Purpose doesn’t drive the Clapping narrative.

Fans of the film will remember the scene where famed and multifaceted artist Flying Lotus performs a lucid, imagery-driven freestyle alongside Glover. Fans will also not soon forget FlyLo, born Steven Ellison, is an inconsistent rapper. 

In 2012, after six years of building a storied career as a mastermind producer, FlyLo, under the pitched-vocal moniker Captain Murphy, anonymously released his first and only mixtape, Duality. For a period, before the performance that revealed his identity, Captain Murphy was a real enigma. MTV, Pigeons & Planes, and various other music publications theorized who he could be. No one knew. 

Captain Murphy was strangely magnetic. Lyrically, he leaned into the cartoon villainy of MF DOOM and Quasimoto, but with a modern, Odd Future-esque sharp-tongue and enough psychedelic drugs to drive Ken Kesey’s school bus. The hilarious, secret persona felt perfect following The Weeknd, who, a year prior, became the most popular man of the shadows. After Abel Tesfaye walked into the light, hip-hop found the magic of a new mystery in Captain Murphy. 

Duality was a passion project, not a pivot toward a rap career. After the surprising reveal, Captain Murphy slowly ceased having an online presence. Over the last seven years, FlyLo’s decision to make limited appearances instead of another full-length offering added novelty to the 31-minute, 15-track mixtape. 

The rarity of FlyLo’s verses after Duality is why the brief, unreleased rap on Clapping For The Wrong Reasons is a scene worth rewinding. One particular line—an Alice In Wonderland reference—will forever standout: 

Picking up expensive habits, chasing after little rabbits, hope they lead me to a place of magic.” 

Flying Lotus believes in magic. Not in terms of witchcraft and wizardry. No, his faith is a spiritual one. Not only does he believe, but he aims to provide magic through music. 

In a 2017 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, the Los Angeles-born musician, filmmaker, and Brainfeeder elaborated:

“After hearing such diverse music as well as sound collages, and hearing what could be done with hip-hop and sampling, it made me want to bring magic to my tracks. That’s the best way I can explain it. My biggest motivator has been bringing some kind of magic to people—something that doesn’t exist yet. I always try and find that place, because it’s fun for me to do.” ―Flying Lotus, "Flying Lotus: From Bedroom Beats to the Big Screen"

Flying Lotus’ motivation to create magic is fitting for a musical world-builder. Early on, he stood out for imagining unusual soundscapes and his talent for translating those inventive thoughts into song. Following 2010’s Cosmogramma, his highly acclaimed third studio album, FlyLo has steadily ascended to a mountaintop exclusive for artistic innovators and creative forward-thinkers. Nothing about him ever seems behind, but ahead.

In May 2019, Flying Lotus released Flamagra, his first new album in five years. The sonic-bending, 27-track project is FlyLo at his longest, just a few seconds short of 67 minutes. The listen captivates, full of alternating wobbles and foot-tapping grooves, elastic bounce and daredevil progressions, glitchy textures, and gorgeous tones—with a stellar cast of collaborators who bring a voice to his world of sound. 

Personally, Flamagra doesn’t currently rank higher than opus-worthy classics Until the Quiet Comes, or You're Dead!, but his ambitious offering is a cunning addition to an ever-evolving catalog. It’s also one of the more unique projects in an ecosystem saturated with new music. 

After seeing Flying Lotus live, I have a newfound appreciation for Flamagra. The 35-year old producer departed on a 34-city North America tour back in August. On September 11, he arrived in Atlanta, Georgia. A mixed crowd of young and old gathered at Variety Playhouse, a former movie theater turned concert hall, for an experience that paired the music of Flying Lotus with 3-D cinematics. It was unusual to enter a venue for a concert and receive 3-D glasses. The lightweight accessory was a small, but necessary addition to the show.

The first half of the concert was more amusement park attraction than traditional production. During the 90-minute set, from behind a well-designed, futuristic platform, FlyLo curated a set compromised mostly of songs from You're Dead! and Flamagra, with a few surprises like his remix of Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat.” 

On stage, he was hardly visible. The fluorescent lights seldom found his face. A mad scientist tucked in a public shadow. Only while performing “Cosplay”—a popular, Adult Swim-sponsored Captain Murphy single released in 2014—did the tour’s headliner appear as the center of attention. 

Even with grooves irresistible enough to inspire sweat-drenching dance, captivation is hard to break. Later in the show, when we removed the 3-D glasses to allow the focus to shift to dancing, the high-energy, rave-esque atmosphere a FlyLo performance is known for briefly entered the venue. 

Back in May, veteran music critic Craig Jenkins interviewed Flying Lotus for a Vulture profile. “I think the first time I heard your music was in the Adult Swim bumpers back in the day,” the seasoned music journalist said to the renowned polymath. Ironically, the visible aspect of his concerts resembles the late-night, short-winded, bright-colored ad style that Adult Swim made famous. 

There’s a familiar quality to the vibrant patterns, illustrated characters, and clips from FlyLo’s filmography. Little difference can be found in the Flamagra North American Tour and being stoned, watching bumpers on YouTube to a Flying Lotus playlist. In this simple characterization is the show’s appeal. The tour is perfect for a generation raised on Adult Swim and J. Dilla; perfect for the sons of Walt Disney who drop acid and research The Grateful Dead and for the daughters of Freddy Mercury who eat shrooms while attending concerts they hope will rival Queen’s 1981, Montreal performance of “Somebody To Love.”

My experience speaks to the breadth of Flying Lotus’ artistry. He understands songs can be seen, and a music video isn’t the only way to pair records with images. He also knows his audience. As a producer—a role that has traditionally been in the background—FlyLo has found the sweet middle between presentation and performance. This dynamic is perfect for a musician who is also a filmmaker. As a star, he isn’t just the face of his work, but the vessel. With his latest tour, Flying Lotus found a future we all can see. 

October 3 will mark 13 years since Flying Lotus’ debut album, 1983, released on Plug Research. That’s 13 years of inventive aims and trusting his creative voice. Undoubtedly, FlyLo has the credentials to be a part of conversations with ever-evolving, legacy producers like Kanye West or Dr. Dre. He may not have their chart-topping hits or mainstream appreciation, but artistically, he's equal in terms of breaking new ground and being an inventive craftsman. 

On stage, FlyLo’s beats breathe instead of bump. They’re alive. He’s alive. He is the rabbit who leads to a place of magic. Flying Lotus, a man who continues to give us a reason to clap.

By Yoh, aka Captain Yoh, aka Yoh31

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