Release Date: May 29, 2020
Record label: Columbia
Diplo was born Thomas Wesley Pentz, a moniker better suited for a country project than Diplo, which is why this purported country move bears the cumbersome title Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley Chapter 1: Snake Oil. The idea behind the project is to expand his horizons while nodding at his roots, but Snake Oil also feels like a canny way to ride the streaming-core wave, where seemingly contradictory styles exist in harmony on a variety of play lists. Naturally, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" is a touchstone, so much so that Diplo's remix concludes this brief affair, but a better point of comparison is "The Middle," the Maren Morris and Zedd collaboration that became a crossover smash in 2018.
One of the most enduring trends of pop music is its capacity to come up with a good idea, then copy that idea a hundred times. Sometimes the copies are worthwhile, indeed sometimes they're better than the original, and that's certainly what Diplo is aiming for with Chapter 1: Snake Oil, his record of country-pop crossovers. Lil Nas X's Old Town Road was clearly the initial inspiration, but the record spends most of its 26-minute runtime on a more EDM-flavoured fusion.
For every Diplo that you see--slouched on a Zoom DJ set in a shirt that says "Mercury's in quarantine," slack-jawed on a red carpet in a bright pink cowboy hat--there are maybe five Diplos you don't see. There he is, folded into Jack Ü, working with Skrillex to make the best song of Justin Bieber's career. Catch him in the Mark Ronson collab group Silk City, throwing throbbing beats under a Dua Lipa track.
You suspect Diplo - a man whose knack for catching the zeitgeist has kept him at the top of pop's go-to collaborators for more than a decade - was having a little chuckle when he named his latest 'Snake Oil'. Marketed as a country album at a time when, thanks to Lil Nas X, Orville Peck and more, the genre is having an upsurge in cool, even Thomas Wesley himself must know that his latest is little more than a classic Diplo offering dressed up to try and fool the masses. Both the aforementioned artists feature - Orville on a spoken word intro; Nas on a closing remix of 'Old Town Road' - but even with an additional clutch of country singers (Noah Cyrus, Zac Brown) on board, the result is still just a big, slick, debatably-decent pop record.
The album itself makes few clear statements about what this unity should look like. It pays aesthetic lip service to the scope of contemporary country but suffers from a scarcity of country trap innovators and bolder-voiced women songwriters. The result is a confused hybrid of country, trap, pop and EDM. The songs are inoffensive, designed to appeal to non-country listeners and to be radio-ready for both pop and country stations.