If Captain Murphy didn’t exist, the internet would’ve invented him. For over six years now, Flying Lotus (the project of Steven Ellison) has stood at an ever-expanding, ill-defined crossroads between electronic music, free jazz, trip-hop, science fiction and instrumental rap, but of all those roads, Ellison was obviously most tempted by hip-hop. He was never shy about the formidable influence Dr. Dre and other West Coast rap luminaries had on shaping his vaporous aesthetic. From his Adult Swim bumper music days to his current Elijah Wood video-making, Thom Yorke-collaborating, Until The Quiet Comes-releasing heights, it only seemed like a matter of time before a formidable MC stepped up to the plate. Given Ellison’s obvious confidence in his own abilities, it’s not shocking that he ultimately decided to do it himself.
As the title suggests, Duality is about binaries. Mixing highbrow taste with lowbrow desires, Ellison’s Captain Murphy persona allows him to build a hip-hop fantasy camp equipped with all the latest production techniques, the coolest samples and all the goofy excesses that you may have to abandon when you sign to Warp. When you’re a distant relative of John Coltrane’s, it might be harder to unleash your inner Chet Haze, but Ellison has done so with aplomb on this tape. Unsurprisingly, Ellison puts it best himself: “Been a long time coming, been lost in the night/Learned how to do the Dougie with the devil in the moonlight.”
So what does Ellison sound like when he’s doing the Dougie with the devil? Well, in the same way Action Bronson has withstood (and deserved) near-constant Ghostface comparisons, Ellison will undoubtedly find himself answering countless questions about whether he knows he sounds like Tyler, The Creator. Yes, I’m sure he knows, especially after months of speculation that he was Tyler. Both have a tendency to drop their voices to a guttural, menacing growl, and they tend to wrap their punchlines and ad-libs in a similarly pleased, smirking cadence. As a lyricist he also shares certain proclivities with Odd Future and other like-minded cohorts: video games, cults, cartoon violence, Pokemon, sexual shenanigans, weed, comic books, barnyard animals. He cuts the absurd “boobies and drugs” material with playful nods to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”) and comic artist Alan Moore (“The Killing Joke”), but he spends most of the tape concerned with more basic pursuits.
What Ellison really brings to the formula is a mischievous ear for beats, a DJ’s sense of pacing and a lifelong hip-hop fan’s giddy excitement. Though it wraps up at a brisk 34 minutes, the tape is defined by its easy-going eclecticism and its impressive tendency to leapfrog between eras. Tracks start out like head-knocking vintage Wu-Tang bangers then veer into Stereolab lounge interludes before segueing into DOOM-like sputters. There are very few guest verses—Earl Sweatshirt stops by on the star-gazing “Between Friends”—but Ellison’s gift as a mimic means that the album often sounds like its coming from a whole team of stoned pranksters, not just one dude with a big hard drive and a great Wi-Fi connection. The piano-driven “Drive Thru” in particular uses vocal manipulations and rapid-fire rhyme patterns to conjure a slew of voices, each one more distinct than any random member of the A$AP Mob.
At times Ellison seems less interested in establishing a mood than undermining it, like on the discursive Just Blaze-produced ’90s throwback “The Ritual,” which tosses Murphy’s gross-out horn-dog tendencies (“My girl whisper in my ear that she’s a virgin/Told her I could smell it”) into a meditative soup of swanky horns, funk guitars and disparate samples. It’s exhilarating but a little exhausting. The mixtape has a sketchbook-like quality, as if Ellison had so much good stuff—found footage samples, obscure jokes, Nintendo references—that he couldn’t bear to cut any of it, giving the tape a meandering, maleable quality. The tape feels like an ambitious lark, so busy learning how to Dougie that it never quite finds its own footing, but, damn, it’s fun to watch it try.