Back in 2014, the electronica/jazz producer Steve Ellison (better known by his stage name Flying Lotus) released his thrilling fifth album, You're Dead!, a concept album about death. The themes of the album, particularly as they relate to Black men, are extremely prescient to the current national conversation about police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter. At the time it was released, critics saw the album as an irreverent philosophical meditation on death as a condition. It certainly can be read that way, but in light of the recent protests and riots that have sprung up around the country and world, You're Dead! has become urgently political and vital to this moment in time as protest music.
Take, for example, the music video for the lead single, "Never Catch Me," which features the rapper Kendrick Lamar. In it, two children, presumably brother and sister, dance out of their caskets at their own funeral. The video is a poignant, darkly humorous rebuttal of death as a state of mourning or something to fear. Implicit, too, in that imagery, is the fear of growing up Black in America.
Lyrically, as alluded to in the song's title, "Never Catch Me" tackles the all-too-common experience of young Black men on the run from police officers, who are, in this video, a personification of Death itself. Slotted as track five in the album, and the first one with an intelligible vocals (thanks to Kendrick Lamar), "Never Catch Me" represents the death of the listener in the world that Ellison has built. Amidst the skittering, hurried beats and Kendrick's adrenaline-pumping, urgent delivery, the listener is placed firmly in the head of someone on the brink of death.
The following track, "Dead Man's Tetris," featuring Snoop Dogg and Ellison's other alter-ego Captain Murphy, is a funky, groovy cut, perhaps the most irreverent of the album itself, where Ellison (as Murphy) and Snoop Dogg take turns mocking the listener and themselves, thinking that "we dead." In the first few seconds of the song, as Murphy tries to gain his bearing, gun shots are heard in the background: a chilling reminder of gun-related violence in this country. Yet those gun shots are kept at bay in the background, never to be heard again until Snoop Dogg's verse, as Murphy/Ellison and Snoop continue to mock and jeer what threatens them.
Prevalent on the album is the bass guitarist and close collaborator of both Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, Stephen Bruner, aka Thundercat. However, Bruner is not credited as a feature except for track 15, "Descent into Madness," on which his vocals are featured along with his bass work. When Bruner does sing on that song, his voice is an eerie falsetto, easing the listener into whatever deranged part of the afterlife/underworld Ellison has lead us to at that point in the album.
For an album so focused on death, so much of the record sounds so frenetically alive: beats, piano keys, brass horns, saxophones, all the makings of a classic jazz album, skitter on cuts like "Tesla" and "Cold Dead," momentarily pausing, later, on songs such as "Moment of Hesitation" and "Ready Err Not." Although You're Dead! presents itself like a jazz album (its opening track is called "Theme," after all), its guts are a compellingly disorienting and exhilarating melting pot of hip-hop, electronica, and jazz.
The most explicitly political track (and most relevant to our current situation) is the record's closer, "The Protest." Featuring a choir singing the refrain of "We will live on forever and forever," and representing the listener's ascent to heaven in Ellison's sonic world of the album, "The Protest," ironically, in its acceptance of death, finds Ellison refusing to die. Throughout the song, he refuses to let death conquer his human spirit, be it at the hands of police or otherwise. Despite all of its explicit references to death, Flying Lotus' You're Dead! is a life-affirming record of the living, for the living.