I was so close to writing a review of James Blake’s new album “Overgrown.” So close that I had a page of notes ready and everything. But then, I found out that Major Lazer had a new album out, “Free The Universe,” somehow titled more ambitiously than Fall Out Boy’s new “Save Rock and Roll.” The fact that I dropped everything and decided to review this album instead should be a testament to how much I love Major Lazer and how much you should love it, too.
For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to dance music for a while, Major Lazer is a group made up of DJs Switch and Diplo, who made a name for themselves producing and partly writing M.I.A.’s one-hit wonder “Paper Planes.” After the success of that song, they joined to form the dancehall-/reggae-primer that is Major Lazer (Major Lazer, himself, being an animated mascot for the team, much like the members of Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz).
In 2011, after their hit first album “Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do,” Switch dropped out of the group-blame “creative differences” — and Diplo was left to his own well-tuned devices. Although Diplo has brought in the producers Walshy Fire and Jillionaire to assist him with producing the album, it’s safe to call this “Diplo’s Major Lazer” album.
And, honestly, more power to him. Diplo is one of the most notorious, talented producers to leap into the mainstream for a long time. As irrefutable evidence, I present “Thought Of You,” the Diplo-produced Justin Bieber song that was so good, it made me a Belieber. Point proven.
However, no matter how many paragraphs I could fill with Diplo love, one of the best parts of any Major Lazer release is the crowd of featured artists. And, for the most part, “Free The Universe” does well in the choice of features. Unfortunately, for as hard as most of the guest artists try, some of them are just simply there, doing very little for anyone.
One example is Peaches, who features on the spectacular track “Scare Me” with Timberlee. It’s odd because I love Peaches and the track itself is just amazingly cool. However, hearing her affected accent combined with lyrics that sound somehow hypersexualized even for Peaches (as in, worse than “Guns” or “What U Like”), it effaces her actual contribution to the song.
The same goes for tracks like “You’re No Good” and “Jessica,” the latter of which features the usually un-missable Ezra Koenig, who spends half the track spouting “badman” and the other speaking in what sounds like German? I didn’t even recognize him until checking the track listing.
Otherwise, Diplo’s production is unusually hit-or-miss. Without the help of DJ Switch, it seems as though Diplo has reverted to a heavily trap-influenced style of dance music. See: “Sweat” because, seriously, that “Major Lazer is blasting you the hits” voice that I’ve heard on every trap single ever detracts from the previously Jamaican-sounding style of the last album.
“Sweat” also showcases a lot of the pitfalls that the album falls into for the uninitiated listener: If you’re not used to the repetitive, spiky synths of trap-inflected music, they can get incredibly annoying. See also “Jet Blue Jet,” which starts out sounding like TNGHT banger “R U Ready” and ends as irritatingly as Butch Clancy’s “Lazy Twerk.”
For anyone at all interested in this album, it really only works as a party album and only for a party whose guestlist has already heard the initially hard-to-deal-with style of music that it contains. Otherwise, it would be totally understandable for one to just quit listening entirely, which would be a shame, considering this is overall a good album. B+