My strange journey into Flying Lotus's music begins with Donuts, an album released three days before its maker (J Dilla) died—February 7, 2006. I happened to be in New York City at that time, and everywhere I went in Manhattan, everyone I knew was talking about Dilla's passing, his impact not only on hiphop but on black popular music, and the merits of his last collection of instrumentals. I bought the CD when the first opportunity presented itself, converted it to MP3 files, downloaded those files into my music machine, and played the album as I walked down Canal Street. At the end of one listening, I was unable to ignore or repress my feeling of disappointment. The album was not at all great. It completely lacked the magic of Dilla's early work with Slum Village, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and, of course, the Pharcyde—whose album Labcabincalifornia introduced Dilla to the world. Donuts (which is not the best title for a hiphop record) sounded raw, messy, and incomplete. Was this failure a consequence of his long illness? I listened to the album one more time, felt the disappointment deepening, and decided to delete it from my machine. I wanted to protect my deep admiration of Dilla from the truth of Donuts.
Dilla left the world with a lot of unfinished business. True, his career lasted a good decade, but he needed more time, more life to fully realize his massive musical project. RZA, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock (the three top producers in the history of hiphop) were able to finish their projects because their goals were not as difficult, as daunting as Dilla's. They (Rock, RZA, Premier) improved hiphop—reinforced it, reinvigorated it; he (Dilla) was in the long and slow process of reinventing it.
I closed the story of Dilla with great disappointment, but I opened Flying Lotus's story with great excitement. It happened like this: A few months after the NY visit, I was in my Central District apartment cleaning while music (Burial, of course—that's almost all I listened to in 2006) played on my machine. Suddenly, a beat I had never heard erupted and filled the apartment. I stopped cleaning. The music was dusty, dusky, digital, and dreamy. It sounded like Dilla, but there was something wrong, something I could not understand—how on earth did I not know this Dilla beat? How could I have missed it? Was it a hidden track on an album? I looked on the machine and saw it was the first track, "1983," on the album 1983 by Flying Lotus. I had never heard of the producer and had no idea how his music got on my machine. But the excitement I felt after one go around with 1983 was exactly the excitement I expected (but failed to feel) from Donuts. At the end of that day, I came to a fateful, terrible, and regrettable conclusion: Flying Lotus was put on earth to finish Dilla's unfinished business.
Now recall for a moment those massive Gothic cathedrals of France. Some took so long to build that more than one architect was involved in their construction. This is exactly how I imagined Dilla's project: He passed away before it was done, but Flying Lotus, a young and healthy LA brother who had a solid command of the master's plan, would continue the noble and important work. Then came 2008 and Flying Lotus's second album, Los Angeles; then came my first hour with the new album and my realization that Flying Lotus had plans other than those of his master. What I heard on the album were lots of un-Dilla-like beats, registers, sequences, and textures. The sound was more free and more experimental than anything Dilla ever made. Lotus clearly had his own agenda, and this, as you may have guessed, upset me. I did not want Lotus to be Lotus—anyone can be who they already are. That's easy. What's hard is being Dilla. I listened to Los Angeles one more time, put it away, and stuck with the dreams and hopes of 1983.
In 2010, FlyLo (as he is often called) released Cosmogramma. I was not at all prepared for how far it had departed from Los Angeles, let alone 1983. Dilla was no longer at the center, but part of a mix that included free jazz, ambient, fusion, dubstep, and electronica—a big and drifting distraction. My total rejection of Cosmogramma was prevented by one very short (1:33) but utterly numinous track, "Zodiac Shit" (cosmic, spaced-out Dilla).
A week ago, I played FlyLo's latest, Until the Quiet Comes, for the first time. I was, as you can imagine, very ready to hate and denounce it. I was ready to go on and on about his abandonment of 1983 and how he squandered his gifts on ideas that were his own but far inferior to those of Dilla. But by the time I reached the third track of this album, "Until the Colours Come," I was totally seduced. Featuring vocals by Thundercat, Thom Yorke, and Erykah Badu, the album manages to push one side to the border of meaningless noise and the other side to the border of full-blown pop. Dilla is still in the mix, but simply as an element, as something added to the layers of pop, house, hiphop, and dub sounds. Cosmogramma is about space, galaxies, and the dust and gas clouds in which stars are formed. Until the Quiet Comes is about that place between dreams and wakefulness, night and day, death and life. I found myself lost in this album for a week. From dusk to dawn, I could listen to nothing else. When I finally came out of the haze, I revisited the second and third albums and discovered things I had completely missed when all I wanted to hear was Lo doing Dilla.
For so long I was totally wrong about Lotus. Dilla was not the end of his art, but only its beginning.