In less than a decade the producer known as Diplo has risen from seemingly nowhere to being the center of the party, making some of the strangest and most groundbreaking electronic dance music to ever shake a bass bin. Combining elements of trap, reggae, and dubstep with pop, Diplo has helped shape the evolving sound of the modern club. It’s been four years since he and his revolving band of guest producers, DJ’s and artists first appeared as Major Lazer and dropped Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do. That record saw minimal mainstream appeal but was embraced by the DJ community as a tool with which to drive an already sweaty audience into an absolute frenzy. The follow up is no different and the fact that it arrived months later than it was originally slotted for release only seemed to increase anticipation among a growing fan base.
The first single, “Get Free” which features the unexpectedly worldly vocals of the Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman came out long before the album was released and yet remains one of the strongest singles among an album full of strong singles. Diplo shows his production prowess by managing to squeeze an indie rock vocalist singing what sounds like a Jamaican folk melody into a reggae framework. What results is one of the most addictive unique pop hooks heard on pop radio. It was quickly followed by floor-scorching drum ‘n’ bass remix by Andy C which introduced it to a whole new audience in that community. For a while you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the unmistakable strings and the wallowing, “Look at me / I just can’t believe / what they’ve done to me.”
Free the Universe’s credits read like a Coachella lineup poster. It’s packed with guest appearances from an extraordinarily wide ranging list of heavy hitters. Diplo must be an extremely charismatic individual to be able to gather together the likes of UK dubstep poster boy Joshua Steele (Flux Pavillion), indie soul singer Santigold, Wyclef Jean and even Peaches. The only thing that seems to be missing here is the ’90s staple dancehall artist, Shaggy. Just kidding — he’s there too.
Perhaps most endearing about the record is that Major Lazer infuse a sense of humour into all of it. Every drop plays like a low-frequency punchline to an eight bar joke. Each bar straddles rapid snares that pop and snap like firecrackers rippling on a waterbed mattress of liquid bass. Is this starting to sound like dirty talk? Then you’re starting to get it.
Reggae vocals appear just often enough on tracks like “Playground” and “Jah No Partial”. On the latter, you get the impression that this might be a lyric Diplo heard on his apparently frequent trips to Jamaica and thought would sound amazing next to a relentless electro-step wobble.
There are weak moments too — like the unfortunate “Bubble Butt” which begins like a trap revisiting of M.O.D.s rather silly hardcore anthem of the same name. Mystic manages to pull it back into that gritty Atlanta sound that fans of trap will appreciate. That last verse ends up giving it an uncanny street cred for a song about butts. Exactly where Bruno Mars fits into the recording is unclear to me — but he’s credited anyway. Perhaps he was just hanging out in the studio along with everyone else in the music industry.
Diplo diplomatically pays homage to the roots of his sound by offering up “Jah No Partial” for remix by the youngest godfather of anything, the godfather of dubstep, Skream. He also gives it to trap production team Heros x Villians. Both are huge improvements over the already enjoyable original. The Skream mix in particular offers up one of the freshest bass wobbles I’ve heard in recent months. If you like the sound of sinister bass, this one is sure to haunt you. I did notice these tracks do not appear on the digital version of the record as it appears on Rdio. You may have to fork out the cash for the original to get these.
Understand that this is not an easy listening record by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I’d even say that if you like to throw down a groove while you’re cooking dinner this is probably going to be a little more than you can handle. This is wall-shaking club music for screaming crowds and vast towers of sub-bass. It’s hard to imagine listening to the whole thing end to end unless you were also working a case of beer at the same pace. But those of you who are looking for something to kick off a crazy summer night in July, look no further. This is track after track of high intensity party music and there’s barely a break to be found.