A concept album about death is as original as a Robert Smith haircut on a Goth kid or a hipster V-neck tee on Childish Gambino. But what’s unique about the Flying Lotus album You’re Dead!, which also has the Angeleno producer rapping as his alter ego Captain Murphy (for the first time outside of a mixtape), is its uptempo take on weighty and depressing subject matter. The project is FlyLo’s way of coping with mortality and the losses of relatives and friends (particularly his labelmate and “DMT Song” collaborator, jazz pianist Austin Peralta, who died at the age of 22, and more recently, Chicago footwork pioneer DJ Rashad), but not once during You’re Dead! does it make you feel like burying yourself under a mound of blankets and never coming out for the rest of the day, except to guzzle an entire gallon of scotch.
With its dizzying and frenzied soundscapes, its EDM bloops straight out of FlyLo’s guest-scoring stint on Adventure Time and its moments of ferocious jazz drumming, the playful and oddly uplifting You’re Dead! is less concerned with brooding and mourning and more concerned about celebrating the accomplishments of the late musician friends of both FlyLo and his regular bassist Thundercat and speculating over the wonders of whatever awaits the dead on the other side. Composing what’s basically a soundtrack to ascension or whatever happens to their friends’ souls after death is kind of a moving way for FlyLo and Thundercat to try to make peace with those losses.
Hip-hop doesn’t exactly have a solid history when it comes to musical works about death. You have occasional masterpieces like “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, and then on the other side of the quality spectrum, you have a bunch of sappy and cloying tribute tracks that don’t stand the test of time, like Diddy’s still-baffling use of a creepy stalker anthem to honor Biggie (Diddy probably also thinks “I Don’t Like Mondays” is a cute little song about Garfield). Fortunately, You’re Dead! is closer in quality to “They Reminisce Over You,” and although it’s more of a jazz album than a hip-hop album (in fact, guest pianist Herbie Hancock is one of the album’s many influences), you can’t get more hip-hop than either “Coronus, the Terminator,” which sounds like it’s influenced by ATLiens/Aquemini-era OutKast, or FlyLo’s first and hopefully not last collabo with Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me.”
Together with the powerful, nicely choreographed and mischief-minded visuals of director Hiro Murai’s “Never Catch Me” video (perhaps the best hip-hop video of 2014 so far), the first single serves as a terrific encapsulation of the album’s themes of other planes of existence and curiosity about those other planes. A great piano hook, infectious digital handclaps and a frenzied beat that’s a perfect match with Kendrick’s solid verse about how “life and death is no mystery and I wanna taste it” are reasons why “Never Catch Me” ranks with “Do the Astral Plane” and “Stonecutters” as one of FlyLo’s most replayable and mesmerizing tracks.
“Turtles” is automatically a winner because it loops singer Edda Dell’Orso’s wordless lullaby from Ennio Morricone’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage score. Between that You’re Dead! joint and producer Sol626’s sample of Morricone’s Metti, Una Sera a Cena theme in “Stroll” by Homeboy Sandman, it’s a nice time to be both a hip-hop head and a Morricone fan. With a little help from eerie and surreal album artwork by Shintaro Kago, the other psychedelic jazz instrumentals on You’re Dead!, like “Tesla” and “Turkey Dog Coma,” effectively convey the album’s central idea that the afterlife is beyond our comprehension (but if there is such a place and when we get there, and even though sadly, we may not be surrounded by people we adored and left behind, maybe the afterlife will be better than Earth). That’s a more intriguing and compelling exploration of death than “Every single day, every time I pray I’ll be missin’ you.”