WARP / PIAS SPAIN
The title says it all, both about what is good and what is uncertain about this album. “Cosmogramma” seems to be a transposition of a diagram, a word defined in the dictionary as “a drawing that shows the relationships between the different parts of a group or a system,” something like an instruction manual, a map, the revelation of the workings of secret mechanisms. Extrapolating it to the hypothetical “cosmogram,” if the word were accepted by the linguistic authorities, what we would have is a map of the whole universe, a guide of itineraries, relationships between proportions and distances—definitively, the key to all space and eternity. If Flying Lotus meant that by this title, then there’s a little too much ego here, too much self-confidence, which should make us wrinkle our noses—something smells off. But in practice, the sound of the songs has more to do with perpetuating a spiritual line that brings together black music and a fascination with the universe and the infinity of the cosmos. We might call it Afro-futurism, the word coined by Kodwo Eshun, or we could come up with another word, but “Cosmogramma” tries to summarise the whole history from Sun Ra to J.Dilla, from the jazz of astral planes to hip-hop that is terse, dislocated, and modern. In any case, it is a Herculean task.
The first conclusion of Flying Lotus’s third album, after having backed up its hype with “Los Angeles” (Warp, 2008), which integrated electronic hip-hop with the hypnotic cadence of dubstep in a natural, logical way, is that now the Californian wants to be more ambitious, more universal. He has made an effort to give unity and majesty to a musical piece that seems to have outgrown this planet—its goal is the entire solar system and the great beyond: it wants to play the music of the spheres in perfect orbits. For this reason, all of the segments of the album are linked, as if in reality it were a single composition divided into seventeen parts. For this same reason, the record company, Warp, crossed out the word “album” when it advertised the record on its website, and replaced it with “space opera.” This concept alludes to the great epic dramas that take place in the endless space of the cosmos, of “Star Wars” to “Captain Harlock,” as well as to the more musical meaning of opera, with a libretto, stage and actors.
“Cosmogramma” belongs to what we call “programmatic music”—it has a plot, it is a piece that tries to tell a story or communicate an idea (in this case, the abstract but real connection between outer space and the major genres of popular black music, starting with jazz and ending with the modern mutations of underground, instrumental hip-hop that has started to bubble up in Los Angeles). Right off the bat, after starting to test the waters with the brief minute of “Clock Catcher,” Flying Lotus uncovers what will be one of the album’s most recurrent gestures: the sampling of astral jazz scales. First with the spasmodic bass of “Pickled!,” with an excitable break-beat underneath that reminds you of both Squarepusher and its original source, Weather Report, and then later with saxophones and vaguely African percussion. It’s a real invocation of Sun Ra—read the title of the eighth segment of “Cosmogramma” carefully: “Arkestry.” It also invokes Miles Davis from “Bitches Brew” and, of course, all of the Coltranes, family to Steve Ellison. Almost all of the final part of the album hinges on this, with galloping basses, winding saxes, allusions to space and the stars—“Do The Astral Plane,” “Dance Of The Pseudo Nymph” and “Drips / Auntie’s Harp”. Then, in conclusion, wanting to be today’s abstract hip-hop equivalent to what “Programmed” (Talkin’ Loud, 1998) by Innerzone Orchestra was to Detroit’s techno. More or less it’s like this— willful, daring, respectful of ancestors, ambitious—but also imperfect.
We had said in the first lines that “Cosmogramma” had something uncertain and something good. The good thing is the exhausting work in the production, the virtuosity that Flying Lotus shows in the use of its MPC sampler, and the unrepentant baroque quality that fills the minutes with concept and audio: every title is a hint that completes the sense of sound. And where he says “Zodiac Shit,” we find Vangelis-like pianos, synthesisers and a great deal of galactic intention somewhere between friendly and ironic. And where the title of the song is irrelevant, sometimes the raw talent of the american arises, like in “Nose Art,” an impossible fusion of the clownstep of jungle producers like Andy C, radio broadcasts, and IDM geometry, and in the participation of Thom Yorke (this is a manner of speaking, he doesn’t sing, it is his voice looped) in “…And The World Laughs With You.” The latter is a song in two parts, a little suite within the overarching narrative of “Cosmogramma,” which alludes to Dilla’s asymmetrical beats and the space dynamic of old intelligent techno.
And so the album flows, somewhere between right and wrong, but always trying to find something different, or an updating of great black music, seeking to be the next man to sail the seas of outer space. Cosmogramma’s real weakness is that it was created to be a masterpiece, and masterpieces, except for random exceptions, (Virgil wrote the Aeneid with the idea of going down in history for it, and he got lucky) arise when you aren’t trying. Some day, Flying Lotus will make a great album without trying, and that will be the one to become a classic. This one isn’t immortal, but it is really good.
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