For fairly obvious reasons, Los Angeles has been an artistic whipping boy. Movie producers would never think of having any other city destroyed, which is a bit ironic given that it’s the city from which most movies are made (not counting Mumbai). Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy, among others, have expressed in song the drawbacks of its gridlock and smog. Even Chuck Klosterman didn’t want to bother with L.A. when writing his rock-star death retrospective, Killing Yourself to Live. Certainly, L.A.’s brand is one synonymous with artificiality and sleaze, and Michael Bay and American Apparel aren’t helping the cause. But get past The Standard and the 101 and you’ll find the positive aspects of the city—its arts and music scenes, diverse culture and cuisine, and a fascinating history. The catch: you can’t take L.A.’s good without its bad.
Los Angeles-based hip-hop producer Flying Lotus acknowledges this duality, and even admits to having hated living there for a time. But with his new full-length, naturally titled Los Angeles, Steven Ellison redefines L.A., or at least repurposes a Blade Runner-style vision of it. Rather than attack it with a nihilistic, albeit socially-aware bent in the same way that X did with their album of the same name, Fly Lo melds the dark and gritty side of the City of Angels with its sunny and breezy past. It’s a chill record, most definitely downtempo in tone, but it bears the harsh and hazy hallmarks of an urban wasteland. It’s a grimy, psychedelic mess, and at the same time, it’s a compelling and sonically dazzling display.
Like his local peers Daedelus and DNTEL, Flying Lotus deals in surreal sonic soundscapes, layering samples in a sublime analog tapestry. Yet his style is more firmly rooted in hip-hop, also bringing to mind the crackly grooves of Madlib or J. Dilla. In a way, Los Angeles is something of a futuristic, West Coast equivalent to Donuts, with several tracks bleeding into one another, flowing seamlessly and hypnotically. Yet Lotus’ music seems more directly tied to an urban environment than that of his fellow Angeleno beatmakers, with the sound of Los Angeles coming alive like the city late at night.
“Breathe.Something/Stellar STar” and “Beginners Falafel” carry smooth beats and distorted, haze-ridden samples, glimmering like the skyline’s lights seen from the far side of an underpass. “Camel,” meanwhile, is sexier and more exotic, with layers of beats shaking and rattling their way toward ecstasy. “Comet Course” is awash in glorious keyboards, while a salsa-fied beat shimmies beneath, and “Riot” throbs with bassy weirdness, like a slightly inebriated weekend ride through the city’s curiously deserted downtown. Yet that ride finds the listener arriving at a hot party in “Parisian Goldfish,” an upbeat banger that demands an emcee, and seeing as how Fly Lo recently collaborated with Lil Wayne, it’s certainly not out of the question. Of course, with “RobertaFlack,” he finds good company with a different vocalist, namely the soulful and trippy-sounding Dolly, and likewise, Gonja Sufi croons over “Testament,” a track that’s both as jazzy and as eerie as Flying Lotus gets.
Ellison said that, in creating Los Angeles, he “wanted to try and bring folks L.A.” Suffice it to say he succeeds, but he does so by avoiding the stereotypes and the tourist traps, but not necessarily the seediness. Los Angeles is both glamorous and grimy, harsh and hypnotic, beautiful and brutal. It’s the most surreal party you’ll ever experience, and as fittingly intoxicated a tribute as a city could receive.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.