Major Lazer’s ‘Free The Universe’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | April 16, 2013 6:00 am
Outside of the Caribbean’s occasional blip on mainstream music culture’s radar (Shaggy, Kevin Lyttle, Sean Paul, early Rihanna), and the unimpeachable Dynamite! series from Soul Jazz Records, chances are the first time most people stateside were really exposed to the vibrant, infectious sounds of contemporary reggaeton and dancehall was on Major Lazer’s 2009 debut Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do... A project founded by Philadelphia-based producer/DJ, and Mad Decent impresario Diplo (Wesley Pentz) along with UK native DJ Switch (Dave Taylor), Major Lazer’s first album proved to be a flawlessly curated tour through the sweaty clubs of dancehall/reggaeton epicenters like Kingston and Port-au-Prince, providing wider exposure for seminal scene figures like Mr. Lex, Ricky Blaze, Nina Sky and Future Trouble in the process.

But Guns Don’t Kill People… wasn’t just a document of a sound or mixtape; Diplo and Switch injected their survey of island dance culture with outside influences, like when they took Holland’s syncopated house music known as “bubbling,”and grafted it onto the twerking reggae-bump of “Pon De Floor” (which later became the basis for Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”). The result was an impressively volatile melting pot of dynamic, globalized dance music.

Unsurprisingly, Diplo’s profile has risen considerably since the release of Guns Don’t Kill People... He went from being that guy who was responsible the superlative beat on M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (which was based off a sample from The Clash’s “Straight To Hell,” which in turn cribbed hard from reggae and dub…the world keeps on spinning, I guess) to becoming one of the biggest producers in the world. He snagged Grammy nominations for his production on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” and Usher’s “Climax,” and found himself producing tracks on Beyonce’s 4, Justin Bieber’s Believe, No Doubt’s Push And Shove and Bruno MarsUnorthodox Jukebox, among others.

When Switch split from the duo in 2011 due to creative differences, Diplo was left to forge ahead under the Major Lazer label as creative director, enlisting producer/DJs Jillionaire and Walshy Fire to assist with production and live tours, the latter of which he’s turned into full-blown spectacles worthy of must-see designations for the summer festival circuit. (I saw Major Lazer set a June afternoon on fire myself at last year’s Governor’s Ball.)

As a result, Major Lazer’s sophomore release, Free The Universe (released ), feels like a widescreen 3D version of the already explosive sound that existed on Guns Don’t Kill People… Diplo calls on bigger name collaborators (Tyga, Bruno Mars, Santigold), an international arsenal of DJ’s (UK’s Flux Pavillion, Holland’s The Flexican and the Philippines’ Laidback Luke) and the usual roster of dancehall/reggaeton all-stars (Vybz Kartel, Elephant Man, Leftside, Opal, Busy Signal, Ward 21, Wyclef Jean and the aforementioned Shaggy) to create a kaleidoscopic, globetrotting dance record that never becomes less than an insanely fun, absurdly catchy house party. Any one of these songs, with the proper big label push, of course, could be shooting up the Hot 100. This is especially true on the album’s second-half trio of tracks with huge hooks: the tropical rhythmic hump of dancefloor burner “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” featuring Busy Signal, The Flexican, & FS Green, the synth-driven future reggae duet between Wynter Gordon and Shaggy on “Keep Cool,” and the stadium-ready Wyclef spotlight “Reach For the Stars.”

And while the dancehall scorchers prove to fuel the album’s engine — like “Pon De Floor” disciple “Jet Blue Jet” and the coolly exotic Santigold feature “You’re No Good” — the impression the quieter moments leave on Free The Universe ends up lingering longest. “Jessica” is just a sticky (seriously, it sounds like an overheated boombox warping a beat-up Toots and the Maytals cassette in real time), old-school reggae track with a lurching guitar riff and throbbing beat, as vocalist Ezra Koenig slurs cryptic lyrics packed with a novel’s worth of details: “My bathing suit is drying on the porch / My mother is crying upstairs / It’s bad, man/ You’re bad, man / And all I want is my Jessica, my Jessica.”

Lead single “Get Free” is a steamy drift downstream, a ghostly ballad that offers Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman, surrounded by haunting organ parts and slow-building synth accents, a stage to show off her considerable vocal talents. Her delivery of the song’s chorus practically stops time. It’s the most arresting and emotional moment on an album that mostly suited to soundtrack large dance floors of daggering couples (not that there’s anything wrong with that): “Look at me! / I just can’t believe / What they’ve done to me! / We can never get free.”

But in the end, the track that could act as the Major Lazer theme song for the next ten years is second single “Jah No Partial,” which combines an incredible vocal sample from legendary reggae singer Johnny Osbourne’s “Mr. Marshall” with UK-based DJ Flux Pavillion’s hard hitting, island-inflected dubstep. The result is a microcosm of everything that Diplo is fascinated by: authentic sounds from a niche, international music scene wrapped in the package of gleaming, endorphin-rushing dance music. “Jah No Partial” is the exclamation point that Free The Universe undoubtedly earns, as Diplo and his collaborators have made, by a wide margin, the most exciting, forward-thinking and, most importantly, purely fun dance record of 2013.

Best Track That Isn’t The Single: “You’re No Good”is a perfectly calibrated, darkly-hued island pop song that’s constructed with clockwork-like precision.

Best Listened To: Live. Seriously. See them in concert. This is what they did to Coachella this past weekend.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Patrick Bowman