Diplo’s New Country Song Is Actually Just a Diplo Song
“What kind of music am I supposed to make?” Diplo asked a Guardian reporter last year when she confronted the superstar DJ about his reputation as a cultural appropriator, for his slick and digestible riffs on Caribbean and black American music. “Being a white American, you have zero cultural capital, unless you’re doing Appalachian fiddle music or something,” he continued. “I’m just a product of my environment.” Thirteen months later, he’s got a new country-ish alter ego, Thomas Wesley, and a new song called “So Long,” which features an image of Diplo wearing a cowboy hat and chugging a Bud Light on its single art. It’s almost too perfect that he would adopt iconography that scans so thoroughly as white, but only after a young black rapper made a No. 1 single out of country-western cosplay. It’s like he said, though: he’s just a product of his environment.
“So Long,” which features vocals from the country singer Cam, is not Appalachian fiddle music—like “Old Town Road,” it’s not even really country—but it does have a little fiddle. At least I think it’s that’s what it is. There are string sounds throughout, but they alternate between sounding like an actual bowed instrument and a preset on a keyboard. The latter sound is responsible for the song’s most effective hook: a call-and-response instrumental line that comes just after the proper chorus, full of uncanny bends between pitches, sudden staccato stops, and long breaths between phrases. If it feels instantly familiar, that’s because you’ve heard plenty of stuff like it before. Replace the fiddle sound with a chopped-up sample of MØ‘s voice, and you’ve got one piece of a pretty solid Major Lazer song; use that weirdly beautiful dolphin-whooshing effect instead, and it’s Jack Ü.
“So Long” is nowhere near as good as “Lean On” or “Where Are Ü Now,” but it’s pleasant enough. Cam brings warmth and coyness to her lead vocal, urging the object of her affection to drop his reservations and be with her—not because she needs him, but because she knows he needs her: “It’s time to give your heart what it wants.” The production ebbs and crests in all the right ways: some spacious piano chords here, a thrumming acoustic guitar there, all leading you by the hand to the payoff of that electro-fiddle lick. But it’s hard to imagine reaching for “So Long” on the jukebox at a honky-tonk, or any bar for that matter. More than anything, it will probably remind you of those earlier hits by the guy we’re supposed to be calling Thomas Wesley now, and maybe make you want to listen to them instead.
Diplo’s reputation as a musical thief isn’t entirely fair, because it doesn’t account for one important part of his appeal. Yes, he’s happy to hop on whatever bandwagon the cool kids are following, but he’s not just mimicking trendy sounds. For better or worse, he’s stripping them for parts, removing or ignoring a few key elements and throwing in a few of his own, rebuilding them according to his vision of a pan-cultural luxury dancefloor where everyone’s happy all the time and his records play on constant loop. At its best, the music conveys this hyperstylized sheen without entirely losing the vibrant human energy of dancehall, or house; and maybe future Thomas Wesley music will actually resemble country in some meaningful way. But often enough—as in the case of “So Long”—his songs come out as piles of aesthetic signifiers and not much else, somehow specific and anonymous at once. In other words, they mostly just sound like Diplo.