By Michael Papich
Let’s count the totems sacrificed to create the new Major Lazer album: the trophy for Indie Song of the Summer 2012, Snoop Dogg’s name, non-mysoginy in live music, a life spent not knowing who RiFF RAFF is. But it was all worth it. Diplo is the weird club music figurehead in the world right now and he has a reputation to deliver it all. Beats, music, shows, acts, tweets, bad haircuts, everything.
With that in mind, “Free the Universe,” Major Lazer’s second album was sure to be amazing. Diplo and S̶w̶t̶i̶c̶h̶ Black Chiney were back with another great reggae and electro album that blew us away so effectively the first time. The first Major Lazer, “Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do” brought us “Hold the Line” and “Pon de Floor,” and possibly more importantly, it kept Santigold prominently in the musical forefront. And on top of that reputational hype, “Free the Universe” was set to have more Santigold, Wyclef Jean, Busy Signals, and even some of Dirty Projectors. And on top of THAT, the album kept getting pushed back by weeks and months, giving the audiences the chum of remixes instead to keep the anticipation at prison riot levels.
And then the album came out.
Diplo seems to have misunderstood how to make house music? So many tracks on this album show a severe disconnect between beat and melody, like a relatively basic snare pattern laid under a chill track is not enough to turn it into a banger. And the way to fix that is not to add more Jamaican patois. Much of “Free the Universe” shows this bizarre lack of competence in making electro songs. Tracks like “Keep Cool” or “Wind Up” just won’t know what they are supposed to do; whether they should be smooth, rave, dubstep, or very reggae.
In fact, a lot of the reggae type of sounds that “Lazers Do” had is done very poorly on “Free the Universe.” The closest track to actually capturing that feel is probably “Jah No Partial,” which balances house and reggae is the perfection we now expect from Diplo, and it makes it one of the album’s strongest songs. But so many others just include a Jamaican vocal track but then either show no further effort or totally mismatch the singer with some poorly made house track. Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Reach For the Stars.” This song seems to think that Wyclef Jean’s Haitian-ness will overwhelm the song and make up for its lack of depth or variety. It doesn’t. This song is awful.
I can’t even see these songs really making people go crazy and dance outside of a Major Lazer show, which are famous for having great showmanship and honestly are recommended no matter how unpalatable this album was. There is such a lack of a hard or sensible beat on so many of these songs and Diplo misses so many chances to go hard to go for a drop or do something interesting. In addition to that, some tracks are just lazy, like “Bubble Butt.” This song, featuring Tyga, Mystic, and Bruno Mars (wow it had Bruno Mars and it sucked? Weird.) was just a run-of-the-mill bad rap song, but it somehow got even worse with bizarre production surrounding it.
Now, “Free the Universe” isn’t all bad. “Get Free,” which was released last summer, was THE song of the summer, in my opinion, and it is fantastic. But it also knew what it wanted to be. If Diplo had tried to make it more of a party track or add in some more reggae sounds like he did with so much of this album, it would turn into moist crap. That balance, which is also seen on tracks like “Jah No Partial” and “Watch Out For This” is something that “Lazers Do” did so well while also creating something new and exciting. “Free the Universe” does not do that.
Reading over this, I realize this is a really snippy review, but it was just so baffling. Diplo is a clown, but he’s backed it up with great music, like the first Major Lazer album, and the tracks that were released in preparation for this album. But there was so much bad about this. Bad production, lazy vocal pairing, Ezra Koenig being…bewildering. Yeah, a major disappointment and I am now a lot less willing to put up with Diplo’s hamming. Time to listen to “Get Free” and weep.