In the space of a couple of years, Major Lazer mastermind Diplo has leapt from being a hipster DJ with a canny line in predicting global dance movements, to a mainstream pop producer capable of sprinkling club credibility over the most white bread of Billboard acts. Somehow he’s managed to deliver beats for Beyonce, Usher, Chris Brown and Bieber – yes, even Bieber – whilst still gripping onto his position as a tastemaking credible prospect. Not that he gives a shit about ‘keeping it real’, telling me in a recent interview that “credibility died 10 years ago.” Apparently all he wants is to keep the party pumping, and he’ll work with anyone, big or small if they further that end.
This second Major Lazer album sees him do just that, with mixed results. The departure of previous collaborator Dave ‘Switch’ Taylor has left Diplo unfettered to push further into glossy fusions of Jamaican dancehall culture and the brashest bass and bleeps of fratboy EDM. Free the Universe doesn’t bother itself too much with nuance, lyrical depth and sensitivity, generally operating on a kind of Back in Black rule of thumb: Can we make this louder? Can we make this dumber?
Still, all aboard – there’s nothing wrong with big stoopid party records, and there’s no doubting Diplo’s touch with a dancefloor banger. Current single Bumaye has a killer horn line, some meaningless good time chat from Busy Signal and a pummelling drop into teeth rattling bashment rave. It’s machine tooled for club mayhem, and dead set to be a summer festival anthem. Elsewhere Bubblebutt is a loose limbed sleazefest, with Rack City rapper Tyga delivering one of his typically horndog raps over oodles of globular bass. It’s filthy and fun, and probably as far as you can feasibly get from a Mumford & Sons ballad, which is worth an extra high five alone.
There are occasional subtle moments, notably the ethereal float of Get Free, which pulses on a half formed reggae beat whilst crystalline fingers of synth melody descend to caress Amber ‘Dirty Projectors’ Coffman vocal. Squeezed from the DNA of Diplo’s former smash Paper Planes, and the classic blue eyed reggae of Carly Simon’s Why, it’s good, but not quite as good as either predecessor, and this is a problem the album suffers on a number of occasions. The other pause for reflection, Jessica, a wonky roots reggae beat given a falsetto vocal by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, has a rhythm cheekily half inched from an obscure 1968 reggae cut, Satisfaction, by Carl Dawkins. Diplo has got a lot of previous in liberally nicking samples – and to be fair a great deal of his talent is in spotting a riff that will work in a different context. In this case however, he’s just remade a reggae classic into a lesser, slightly pointless reggae song. To those unfamiliar with the original it will doubtless sound lovely, but it’s left a stale taste in my mouth. I’m pretty sure that the not-that-skint-at-all Koenig and Diplo are going to be making a lot more cashmoney off Jessica than Carl Dawkins ever did.
The rest of the album is a mish mash of occasional hits and half finished tracks. For every Scare Me – a joyful B52s-meets-ragga-meets-electroclash stomp along, which sees scene queen Peaches step back into the limelight- there are too many turgid dance duds, such as Jah No Partial or Sweat, where all the energy is requisitioned by the towering, gargantuan builds with none left for the tune. They’re like reverse rave Tardis; massive on the outside, fuck all in the middle. Lower still are the guff pop moments featuring Shaggy and Wyclef. The less said the better.
Overall Free the Universe is a disjointed listen. The more restrained moments stand out as highlights, and the couple of decent dance numbers hit the spot. In between there is a too much ear bothering filler, which could only appeal to the lowest common denominator rave jocks flooding America. Maybe it sounds different booming from a Miami festival stage, but for my money, it’s way too much mouth and way too little trouser. 6/10