The ghosts that circle the arc of You’re Dead! have no interest in haunting, nor are they here to impart spectral wisdom. Like all Flying Lotus projects, You’re Dead! adopts a variety of influences, and this time each is invited to subtly offer a different approach to mortality. Alice Coltrane builds restlessness as she lingers on the opening jazz progression; J Dilla appears in the middle of the album to create sedated anticipation; Austin Peralta shows up toward the end to confront regret without romanticizing it. Anxiety turns to acceptance; motifs feverishly pass without closure. At 31 years old, Steven Ellison has lost family, friends and collaborators, but rather than mourning their loss, he chooses to call on them for lessons on how to approach the end.
You’re Dead! is a challenging listen at times, but its narrative moves fluidly. It’s the closest thing to a pure jazz album that Flying Lotus has ever released, but it doesn’t shy from Hip Hop and ambient electronic tones, either. In a dense 38 minutes, You’re Dead! details death as a mysterious, liberating force and evokes strong emotional attachment without any cheap ploys for it. Much like Cosmogramma and Until The Quiet Comes, You’re Dead! uses a wide musical palette to tell a story that is both surreal and resonant. And similar to The Roots’ undun, much of that story is suspended between the moment of death and the slow reveal of what happens next.
That moment of death appears to take place early in the album, and not surprisingly, it’s the bluntest part of the project. On the frenetic “Never Catch Me,” Kendrick Lamar “analyzes [his] demise” and prepares for the “final destination.” It ends with a triumphant “Bitch, you’re dead!,” and welcomes a euphoric bass breakdown from Thundercat as Lamar swears that he won’t be caught. The next 14 songs brace for impact, starting with the spirited drop of “Dead Man’s Tetris” and the airy, apocalyptic wails of “Coronus, the Terminator.”
What follows is grappling with incomplete relationships and unsaid words. The creepy hum of “Ready err Not” and analog strut of “Eyes Above” find Fly Lo scaling back on the defiance heard in the first quarter of the album. “Descent Into Madness” brings the realization that the end will in fact catch him, and “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep” introduces a nightmarish trip before a fluttering, woozy last few songs bring release.
Like previous projects, You’re Dead! offers complex arrangements and sudden breakdowns, and most songs are shorter than two minutes. Unlike other offerings, however, You’re Dead! makes greater use of vocals, and the album’s excellence is obviously in part due to the strenght of its guest apperances. Lamar’s verse on “Never Catch Me” is one of the best of the year, and it offers a rare moment of articulation — “Recognize I deprive this fear and then embrace it,” he raps from over his shoulder. Snoop Dogg’s snarl perfectly compliments alter-ego Captain Murphy’s grim chants on “Dead Man’s Tetris,” Thundercat’s bass sequences pack unbridled energy throughout the LP, and Herbie Hancock’s keyboard work on “Tesla” and “Moment of Hesitation” smooth out the standout jazz tracks.
The story of You’re Dead! is up for personal interpretation, but it’s clear that Fly Lo never had any interest in mourning or wallowing. The album explores what happens after death, but the vague destination isn’t as important as the liberation that comes during the journey. One of the most accomplished releases of the year, You’re Dead! embraces the uncertain, celebrates fear, and induces a meditative consciousness that’s hard to shake after listening.