I’ve been mulling this article over in my head for the better part of three weeks. Now, not every waking moment of those 18 days was spent curled in a fetal position on my bed, marveling in horror at the utter inadequacy of written language for the task at hand, but suffice it to say that the problem posed by this article has kept me up nights.
It’s the type of problem any writer faces, but that doesn’t make it any less profound. Really, it’s the problem of written expression — to translate something intangible, a feeling, a moment, an image, into words that other people will understand, to tell the “truth” about the thing you’re writing about. And the truth is that two-and-a-half weeks ago at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, I experienced something uncanny, something that I’m not sure I have the literary wherewithal to articulate.
In short, I went to a Flying Lotus concert.
But I’ve already run into problems — really, “concert” isn’t exactly the right word to describe what FlyLo did. Yes, I was in what you might call a concert hall. Yes, there was a stage with a musician on it. Yes, a room full of people had come there to watch said musician make noises at them. But within moments of FlyLo taking the stage, it became clear that “concert” and all of the expectations tacked onto that term — the song, clap, witty banter, song, clap formula, the room full of gyrating twenty-somethings in various states of inebriation — none of that imagery would adequately encapsulate the sublime artwork happening in that theater.
FlyLo’s stage setup consisted of a massive prismatic cube flanked on either side by strobe lights and enormous speakers. Inside the cube, whose walls doubled as 3-D projector screens, a small set of stairs led up to a podium where the L.A.-based producer had set up his laptop and DJ equipment, looking a good deal like a conductor’s stand. Before he began his set, FlyLo appeared with little ceremony from behind the right side of the cube. He walked out to the front of the stage, dressed in an undertaker’s black suit, and addressed his audience as the sound of funereal organs filled the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re gathered here tonight for a most beautiful occasion.”
He slowly climbed the stairs to his perch, putting on a black mask with glowing yellow eyes. The organs cut out and he finished his speech.
“But I’m afraid I have to tell you … You’re dead!”
The frenetic opening lines of “Theme” from FlyLo’s latest release, You’re Dead!, blared out of the speakers, and the music would continue with only a handful of pauses for the rest of the nearly three-hour set. He was doing largely improvised trap renditions of tracks from his entire Flying Lotus discography interspersed with a handful of Captain Murphy numbers, pairing his beautifully syncopated rhythms with stunning visuals projected onto the walls of the cube surrounding him.
The one minute and thirty second track “Fkn Dead” expanded into a nearly four-minute-long trap/jazz fusion accompanied by animations of tastefully disemboweled and segmented bodies provided by Japanese guro artist Shintaro Kago. “Getting There,” a masterpiece of sound engineering off of 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes, came across just as crisply in the live setting as a lightly rotoscoped version of the track’s music video played on the screen.
Throughout the performance, FlyLo stood at his podium, his mask’s yellow eyes shining through the animations surrounding him, rocking back and forth in time with the music. He was very clearly uninterested in providing the sort of inclusive experience one usually finds at a hip-hop concert. There was no call and response with the audience and certainly no call to “get turnt”; he didn’t even really ask how anybody was doing, All in all, he might have said 100 words by the end of the night, most of those at the very end of the show.
But if this performance was impersonal, it was impersonal in the same sense that an opera or tragedy is impersonal, which is to say profoundly beautiful and moving without feeling the need to be on a first-name basis. FlyLo wasn’t there to build a reputation or a fan base — he has already achieved both in spades, and his reward is the ability to create art divorced from the more practical considerations that bog down other artists. The crowd was unusually reticent for a hip-hop concert, but the gaping mouths and stunned expressions around the room showed that they understood their job: they were simply there to watch the master at work.
That room full of awed expressions illustrates, perhaps better than any other image, the uncanniness and intangibility of this concert. You could not be in that room, staring at those glowing eyes behind the projector screens, and feel anything other than a sort of ecstatic wonder, a bewildered reverence for the man and his music. Flying Lotus is one of those artists, like the Abbey Road Beatles or the “Don Giovanni” Mozart or the Bitches Brew Miles Davis or even the MF Doom and Madlib of Madvillainy, who seems to have reached as nearly as one can, however fleetingly, to perfection.
But perfection is a very different thing from being flawless. FlyLo made a handful of mistakes throughout the show — a mismatched visual cue here, a mistimed drop there — but even the errors seemed to have a sort of logic to them, adding to the performance rather than subtracting from it. And that’s precisely what makes him perfect: the ability to reconfigure flaws and mistakes into a workable whole, shoring up the gaps with his own innovations. Where hip hop falls short, he takes cues from jazz. When simply standing on stage with a laptop doesn’t work, he builds a 3-D projector cube on top of it. Hell, when Steven Ellison himself doesn’t get the point across, he becomes a masked, nameless undertaker with giant, luminescent yellow eyes.
It is uncanny, it is intangible, it’s a kind of magic you can’t necessarily understand, but music can approach perfection, and you know it when you see it. Two-and-a-half weeks ago in Royal Oak, it looked a lot like Flying Lotus.