Release Date: April 16, 2013
Label: Mad Decent/Secretly Canadian
Diplo’s transformations from underground producer to indie celeb to mainstream EDM pop star have been well-documented and well-orchestrated. The man born Wesley Pentz alternately taunts and charms the press as he treats social media like a new religion, Instagramming star-studded studio hangouts, his kid’s fashion choices, and upside-down butts with equal fervor. No surprise, 20th Century Fox just announced the company has bought the rights to a movie about three kids trying to get into a Diplo concert, with Pentz serving as creative director and executive producer. Unquestionably, the guy is a master salesman.
So much so, in fact, that you almost forget he still makes music. His Major Lazer project debuted in 2009 with the full-length Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do, a joint venture between Diplo and U.K. producer Dave “Switch” Taylor, a lucrative pairing that had claimed responsibility for the early successes of both M.I.A. and Santigold. As Major Lazer, they re-shaped Afrojack’s “That’s the Way I Like It” and “Moombah” into “Pon de Floor,” an infectious dancehall track that predated the popularization of moombahton, spurred a hip and electro-friendly radio following, and eventually morphed into Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).”
Switch has since left the fold — amicably agreed-upon creative differences, as a recent interview explains — and so for the sequel, Diplo is joined by both Trinidad and Tobago-born producer Jillionaire and Walshy Fire (he of Miami’s Black Chiney dancehall crew). Still, if it’s undiluted dancehall you’re looking for, turn away. Instead, Free the Universe is freaked-out pop with no qualms about delivering, say, a sunny, beachside reggae jam with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig crooning the verses. It’s a massive release, boasting 27 featured artists in the span of 14 tracks, alongside who knows how many unlisted producers attempting myriad hybrid genres. Pop-meets-dancehall is still the group’s overarching intention, but there’s also punk rock, dubstep, rap, and various cross-pollinated dance crazes, all redolent of the globetrotting style for which Diplo’s Mad Decent label is known.
Recorded at Jamaica’s Tuff Gong studios, the record’s strongest asset is making things that shouldn’t work together sound natural: Opener “You’re No Good” finds Santigold and Vybz Kartel in a lover’s quarrel where marching-band snare rolls and sauntering kick-drums give their pleas a dramatic, swaggering stomp. Shaggy and Wynter Gordon’s “Keep Cool” pairs lurking, climaxing synths with an easy, car-radio-friendly pop hook. And while imposing female vocalists abound here, “Scare Me” blows the rest out of the water, a frenetic, elastic bass line and hyperactive drumbeat driving an electro-ska romp with uncensored TNT singer Timberlee battling Peaches for foreplay supremacy, “I’m gonna make you sing songs like Usher and NeYo / So sweet” butting against “Chewin’ on your bird / I’m gonna hack it like a murderer.”
A few duds sneak in: Wyclef Jean’s “Reach for the Stars” rivals will.i.am’s kindergarten-themed PSA of the same name for general blah-ness, while Elephant Man and Opal’s “Wind Up” drowns in rave-synth screams — a surprise, considering that last year’s Elephant Man/Diplo collaboration “Move Along” worked flawlessly. But the EDM crossover attempts here are great when they connect, especially when revisiting the old with the new. “Watch Out for This (Bumaye)” is a swinging summer anthem with the always-hype Busy Signal on the hook and Dutch production duo Flexican and FS Green on the beats; the song samples the latter’s “Bumaye,” a relaxed, moombahton-esque dancehall twist on salsa icon Willie Colon. “Jah No Partial,” released back in October, runs on drum and bass, the ’80s reggae dub of Johnny Osbourne’s “Mr. Marshall” bolstered by the dubstep wubs and open-armed trance synths running amok at EDM festivals. And “Sweat (Through Your Radio)” will turn those same festival crowds into feral mosh pits: Glasses crash, chains clank, and a vicious Ms. Dynamite dodges bouncing synths similar to those found on Diplo’s 2008 remix of Bingo Players’ “Get Up”; intentional or not, he has no qualms about frequently revisiting and revising his own past, too.
And then there’s “Bubble Butt” (“Bubble butt / Bubble, bubble, bubble butt”), which finds dancehall queen Mystic lyrically wining circles around Bruno Mars and Tyga on what is bound to be one of the most gloriously overplayed songs of the summer. The springing bass and massive bub-bub-bubbing hook equal Big Boi’s “Shutterbug” (and Jimmy Spicer’s “The Bubble Bunch, for that matter) in terms of sheer catchiness, yet is unmatched in its amazing ridiculousness. So do we thank Diplo himself, or the small army of collaborators he’s amassed around him? Is he Major Lazer’s primary musician, or is he just the project’s most prominent salesman? It’s harder than ever to tell, but it matters less and less.