Like Supermayer (Michael Mayer and Superpitcher) and Madvillain (Madlib & MF Doom) before them, Major Lazer, aka Diplo (Wesley Pentz) and Switch (Dave Taylor), have alleviated some of the baggage that the debut of a heavyweight duo like theirs can bring, by giving it a crime-fighting comic book alter ego.
Major Lazer is, according to the press release, “a Jamaican commando who lost his arm in the secret Zombie War of 1984”, and now, fitted with a lazer-shooter for an arm courtesy of the US military, is “a renegade soldier for a rogue government operating in secrecy underneath the watch of M5 and the CIA”. How does he achieve his stealthy objectives? By posing as the owner of a dancehall nightclub.
Despite the ridiculous ‘plot’ conceit of Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do – which, it has to be pointed out, doesn’t bear any relevance or narrative thread on the lyrics of the guest vocallists – the album shows Pentz and Taylor meeting at the geographical midpoint between their most well-known sounds. Switch’s fidgety Baltimore beats and Diplo’s Brazilian Baile Funk meet to get down ‘n’ dirty together in Jamaica, in the hallowed Tuff Gong studios of reggae lore. Major Lazer’s mission is to get you moving, and his weapon is dancehall. Eschewing the vast catalogue of traditional Jamaican riddim tracks, Pentz and Taylor hone in on the specifically ‘80s style of digital dancehall, enlisting a who’s who of singers, MCs, toasters, and pop stars along the way.
Tackling the range of genres that define and connect them both – fidget, ghetto, Baile, booty, hyphy, B-more, electro house, Miami – plus adding a dancehall element is no small feat, and on paper, not such an appealing one. With the frenetic cut-and-paste samples and bass-heavy beats that fill every space in these mashup genres, there are already so many elements packed into the average track, that it can feel like a sonic assault, coming at you from all angles, more distracting than it is enjoyable. To counter this, Pentz and Taylor pare things back, and strike a musical compromise with the simple bass/percussion/vocal framework of dancehall, for an album consisting of an even mix of hits and misses.
Opening with the delightfully minimal “Hold the Line”, which constructs a ragga riddim from a neighing horse, a lone kick drum and a bassline from a sampled guitar riff, it features Mr Lexx and Santigold bouncing lyrics off each other, over ringing phones, breaking glass and cash register ‘ka-chings!’, all with the purpose of making you “vibrate like a Nokia”. “When You Hear the Bassline” reigns it back in to familiar Diplo & Switch territory, with some Jamaican flavour courtesy of Ms. Thing’s overbearing auto-tuned vocals, as does the forgettable “Bruk Out” also featuring Ms. Thing (plus auto-tune) and T.O.K.
Traditional approaches to Jamaican music yield mostly positive results. The Mr Vegas and Jovi Rockwell vehicle “Can’t Stop Now” is a summery but syrupy reggae love song, “What You Like” matches simple dancehall-meets-hip hop programming with blush-inducing dancehall sex rhyme, “Cash Flow” is a beautifully melodic love letter to money and its supposed freedoms, poignant in its somber, aspirational tone, and MC Turbulance has murder on his mind on the melodramatic (via overwrought strings) but ominous bass-monster that is “Anything Goes”.
Major Lazer excels when the rulebooks are cast aside. A marching band provides the rhythm track of smoker’s delight “Mary Jane”, all honking brass and rolling drums, with Mr Evil and Mapei’s inane nasal rhymes - “Mary Mary quite contrary / Girl you must be my fairy” – adding to the fun, off the-wall feel. Major Lazer then chops the marching band into pieces (not literally, of course) with “Pod de floor’”, rearranging the drums and horns into an effective bare-bones Baile workout, accompanied by vocal modulations, glitches and reverbs. Superb.
Reggae funnyman Prince Zimboo, hyped as the African equivalent of Borat, makes a hilarious appearance on “Baby”, a too-short interlude, where an infant’s cries mutate into a psychedelic auto-tuned melody, while he implores the youngster to not “get (it’s) diapers in a bunch”, in his thick African accent. His spoken-word advice to the kid ends with a compromise of sorts: “That breast is yours, this breast is mine / Don’t get out of line.”
Elsewhere the regrettable “Keep It Goin’ Louder”, the worst example of super slick and rinsed-out electro pop, and featuring vocals from Nina Sky, is redeemed by the well-named closing track “Jump Up”, a hip- soca-house throwdown so infectious that no one is safe from its beats. The track is co-produced by fellow fidgeters Crookers, and is predictably geared towards maximum dancefloor devastation.
Whether it’s taken as a compilation or a concept album, Guns Don’t Kill People, Lazers Do marks the evolution of two artists hemmed in by specific genres of their own creation, and sees them push the boundaries of expectation and experimentation a little to the left. It remains to be seen whether Major Lazer will lay down arms after his Caribbean adventure, or continue on in his quest, but if it’s the latter it may just be worth hanging in there for the next episode.