Release Date: Apr 16, 2013
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Electronic, Dancehall, Pop/Rock, Club/Dance, Ragga
A DJ's job is to throw a party, and that's what DJ-turned-It-producer Diplo does with his reggae-centric side project. The guest list is crazy: "You're No Good" mashes up Santigold, R&B folkie Danielle Haim, Brit soul newbie Yasmin and dancehall don Vybz Kartel; "Get Free" wraps Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors in a lover's rock groove; "Jessica" finds Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig in a stoner-dub haze, pining in German. It's less strictly Jamaican than Major Lazer's debut, connecting reggae's often-insular tradition to a wider world.
Call it explosive, call it exploitative; call it genius, call it gentrified; call it what you will, one thing is for certain: Diplo and his Major Lazer project is on some next-level shit, and it’s going to be a global force to be reckoned with in 2013. Divorced from former partner Switch due to “creative differences,” Diplo has forged ahead with the Major Lazer name and aesthetic, adopting Jillionaire and Walshy Fire into the tropical cartoon fold for the project’s second full-length, Free the Universe. The mish-mashed mash-ups of genres here are so interesting, varied and fresh that you could probably just start making them up and you’d still be right.
There are always a few surprises when it comes to Major Lazer, Diplo's down n' dirty dancehall dabbles in as many genres as it counts collaborators among its ranks. True to the persona's growing world of post-apocalyptic imagery, not to mention a cast of vividly rendered characters that would fit nicely into Hasbro's old G. I. Joe toyline alongside Cobra Commander and Sgt.
His co-conspirator Switch may have moved on, but with producer Diplo's bag of tricks and his hipper-than-hip selection of guests (including major help from producers Jillionaire and Walshy Fire), the Major Lazer mythos -- he's a DJ by night and a Jamaican zombie killer by other nights -- is alive and twitching on this sophomore release. This welcome return begins deceptively with the slow-burning kiss-off "You're No Good" starting the show, but the combination of marquee vocalists Santigold and Vybz Kartel couldn't illustrate the left-field-dance-meets-Jamaican-dancehall style of the project any better. Once the credits roll on the cinematic track, it's straight-up bonkers time with "Jet Blue Jet," a bleeping, furious, trap music cut where dancehall don Leftside leads the pack and offers a Baauer-challenging version of the "Kingston Shake.
As befits a homage to Jamaican music, there appears to have been an intensely relaxed air to updating the Major Lazer formula. Their 2009 debut, Guns Don't Kill People, Lazers Do, mixed roots, dub and dancehall with more Americanised rhythms, all embellished with local vocal talent. The same holds true for Free the Universe, with added guests from North America.
In less than a decade the producer known as Diplo has risen from seemingly nowhere to being the center of the party, making some of the strangest and most groundbreaking electronic dance music to ever shake a bass bin. Combining elements of trap, reggae, and dubstep with pop, Diplo has helped shape the evolving sound of the modern club. It’s been four years since he and his revolving band of guest producers, DJ’s and artists first appeared as Major Lazer and dropped Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do.
Britain may be currently enduring a winter of Narnia-like duration and bitterness, but there is a cure for chronic SAD that doesn’t involve buying a weird bedside lamp that tricks your sleeping carcass into thinking it’s lazing by the pool in Ibiza. That cure is Major Lazer’s second album, ‘Free The Universe’, which comes with 14 hits of Vitamin D-boosting dancehall daftness.The album follows 2009’s ‘Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do’, a record that put Major Lazer on the radar of Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg and No Doubt, all of whom came in search of a little faux-Jamaican magic for their own music. Yet as their star ascended, Major Lazer fell apart, and ‘Free The Universe’ is the first to feature Diplo, but not Switch.
Dancehall purists should probably steer clear of this Jamaican-flavoured music project from globetrotting DJ/producer Diplo that's designed for the dance music mainstream, more Ibiza than Kingston. The 2009 debut was silly and entertaining in equal measure; album number two ramps up the risibility factor even further and will make most sense at one of the group's barnstorming live shows. Through headphones, much of it sounds overblown (Jah No Partial) or infantile (Bubble Butt, with Bruno Mars).
When Major Lazer bounded onto the party circuit with 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do, it was, in two words, dancefloor dynamite. London house music veteran Switch and Philadelphian global bass ambassador Diplo’s collaborative debut was a hyperactive, gymnastic concept album that flipped dancehall on its head and gave it a jolt of electro. Its Spandex-tight beats, blooping 808s, spaghetti western guitar, badman lyrics and rhythms made you want to oil your buns, slide into a neon thongkini and grind.
For the longest time, Diplo’s role as a producer has been steeped in importing, curating, and reconfiguring global dance sounds from favelas to shantytowns to the projects. That approach has been depicted as everything from transcendent, no-borders futurism to an exploitative colonialist ripoff, but most of his fans seem most interested in how much a given track bumps. The critical narrative shifted from Diplo as hipster scavenger to Diplo as arena-ready body-mover on the basis of a pop breakthrough that came through Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor”.
After the success of debut Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do, and the departure of creative partner Switch, Diplo has serious plans for this project. “I’ve made enough songs about getting money or fucking bitches,” he’s decided, declaring his intention to make “a concept album about freeing the universe from mental slavery”. Which is fine, except that Major Lazer is a Jamaican commando cyborg who lost his arms in a secret zombie war, and turns up to parties on his rocket-powered hoverboard.
King Tubby, the father of dub music, once famously stated: “Roots music is creative music… It’s original. It comes from the heart. If you want to create a different sound, you create that different sound.” Using his custom mixing deck, Tubby became one of Jamaica’s biggest celebrities during the 1970s based on the success of his larger soundsystem and the progressive production work he had done with the country’s popular artists.
Two things worried us in the lead-up to the release of Major Lazer's second album: it was repeatedly delayed, and Diplo's original partner in crime, Switch, was no longer an official member of the dancehall/reggae-inspired project. According to Diplo, Switch's absence is the result of his inability to actually finish a song. But given that Switch receives a writing credit on Free The Universe's most song-oriented tracks, it's fair to assume he was vital to the partnership after all.
Whether remixing Beyonce, re-imagining Gwen Stefani and No Doubt, or receiving a recent Grammy nomination for Best Producer, Philadelphia-based boardman Diplo has become the mainstream‘s latest EDM success story. So it makes sense to view Free The Universe, the second full-length from his Major Lazer project, as a necessary outlet for his more outre impulses. The deliberately eclectic guest list insures this is a more wide-ranging offering than the Jamaican-heavy 2009 debut Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do.