Major Lazer - Free the Universe - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Major Lazer - Free the Universe

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2013-04-16

There's been no great change of formula on the second album from Diplo's Major Lazer, despite the departure of creative foil Switch due to 'creative differences'. Where 2009 debut Guns Don't Kill People, Lazers Do mixed dub, dancehall and roots reggae with dubstep and EDM, Free the Universe does pretty much the same but chucks in guest appearances from some big names. Collaborations with the likes of Bruno Mars, Wyclef Jean and Flux Pavilion definitely indicate that Diplo has an eye on creating a mainstream US hit, something borne out in much of the music.

However, while the production is relentlessly glossy, with bowel-shaking drops making frequent appearances, vocals from Peaches, Amber of Dirty Projectors (on 'Get Free', a virtual love-letter to The Knife), Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and Santigold prove Diplo is hedging his bets and aiming to provide something for all comers. Peaches crops up on second track 'Scare Me', the album's highpoint, which mixes giddy synth-squelch with a bubblegum 50s rock 'n' roll guitar-line. Peaches delivers the latest in a long line of hilariously filthy raps, including telling us she can "feel your wikileak". Oh, Peaches. It all makes for brilliant, crazy-eyed and wildly inventive pop music.

'You're No Good', meanwhile, is the kind of hard-edged yet sultry electro-dub Santigold specialises in, so it's no surprise to find her delivering vocals here. Its down-tempo pace and moody atmospherics make a welcome change from the perky, cloying EDM on offer elsewhere. Such offenders are many, but perhaps the most irritating is 'Keep Cool' featuring Shaggy (bloody Shaggy!) and Wynter Gordon. Not just because its unholy mash-up of 90s rave synths, grating brostep drops and sirens, and, well, bloody Shaggy (!) is just a hot mess, but because Gordon's lyrics about a woman escaping from an abusive relationship actually deserve far more sensitive treatment.

Elsewhere, what might look horrible on paper turns out to be pretty good. Bruno Mars takes time out from being the most punchable man on the planet to praise big bums on the aptly bouncy 'Bubble Butt'. It's not sophisticated or clever but it is extremely catchy and not at all annoying - something of a novel approach for Mr Mars.

Seeing as Major Lazer's debut brought Diplo to the attention of superstars like Beyonce, you can't really blame him for keeping his hand in when it comes to chart-friendly fodder. But Free the Universe shines most when it shifts away from this template. Witness the deceptively simple lovers rock of 'Jessica', sung with a falsetto sweetness worthy of Junior Murvin by Ezra Koenig. Half-way through, the track begins to echo and warp in a way that's part heavy-stoner, Lee 'Scratch' Perry dub, part psych freak-out. Eventually, Koenig's voice is just a tinny buzz rippling inside a gloopy dub broth. It's genuinely strange and thrilling.

For the most part, Free the Universe aims at being nothing more ambitious than a great party album, and it succeeds winningly. Opener 'Wind Up', 'Sweat' (featuring the ever-reliable Ms Dynamite) and the frantic 'Jet Blue Jet' are bursting with Vitamin D vibes, cataclysmic breakdowns and irresistible rhythms. However, the EDM-by-numbers likes of 'Reach for the Stars'; the irritating, repetitive gimmickry of 'Mashup the Dance', and the crass brostep of closer 'Jah No Partial' also suggest that this may be a format which won't stretch to a third long-player.

Free the Universe is an odd beast: half whip-smart, funky and inventive, half play-it-safe and commercially-minded. You sense that this is the head-space Diplo inhabits right now. As uncomfortable as that may be, at least he hasn't become a dead-eyed hit-machine like Timbaland. Hopefully, Diplo's future will contain some more risks and surprises. It would be a shame for a free-wheeling talent such as his to go to waste.

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