Major Lazer – Free the Universe
It’s been quite a journey up to the release of Free The Universe, the second album from Diplo and co. Formerly a collaboration between Diplo and Switch, the lineup’s changed with the former replaced by new members Jillionaire and Walshy Fire. The album was originally meant to be released last year, but suffered three delays. A calender year and three singles later, it’s finally here. Joined by a whopping 31 collaborators – with everyone from Santigold to Flux Pavillion to, ummm, Shaggy – Major Lazer bring the party like only they know how. Jillionaire has described the album as “what we think that dancehall music and Caribbean music will sound like in the future.” And there is certainly a whole lot of both dancehall and reggae-inspired beats on Free The Universe. In fact, the record sounds like an all-night beach party run by a left wing political party (who know how to party).
The album is essentially a concept record about “freeing the universe from mental slavery”, as Diplo put it. And for the most part, it conveys that. The whole record sounds euphoric with lyrics like “Freedom I can taste it” belted out on the Wynter Gordon/Shaggy featuring Keep Cool, creating those essential hands-in-the-air-moments. It’s not as much political as it is an album about personal freedom delivered both through the music and the lyrics. When the crescendoing dancehall beat is cranked up and then released like on Jet Blue Jet, there’s an unadulterated moment of joy. That’s the biggest positive of this album: it’s produced with clear intent to be an extremely moveable and transporting experience.
Where it goes wrong is that it doesn’t hold the same cohesiveness musically as it does conceptually. One moment we’re in heavy bass, dubstep territory with Flux Pavillion on Jah No Partial and the next we’re booty shaking to a hip-hop inspired, popping beat on the Bruno Mars guest starring Bubble Butt. The former track is probably the albums weakest, and proves that Major Lazer are their best on Free The Universe when they stick to those Caribbean sounds.
Put aside the album as a cohesive piece of music and take it track by track. As a collection of songs, it’s a wild, sporadic trip through the Caribbean, from the brassy hook of Watch Out For This (Bumaye) to the moombahton cranker Wind Up. If fans are looking for a Pon De Floor moment, Wind Up is where you’ll find it, the track starring the relentless percussion and strobing synths that defined their last album. That sound’s reintroduced five tracks later on Sweat with Laidback Luke & Ms. Dynamite. It seems as if Diplo is drawing inspiration from his production on M.I.A.’s Kala on this one.
If you latch onto one type of sound that you like on Free The Universe, chances are it will pop up another two or three times before the record’s through. New fans drawn in by the brilliant Amber Coffman featuring Get Free will take comfort in the similarly chilled out Jessica with Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. Jessica sees Koenigh crooning in falsetto while the music trots along, carefree to a Caribbean flavoured beat. It’s an exciting reminder of how well the crew can transcend genres. Unfortunately for this type of Major Lazer fan, they may be put off by a few of the other tracks including the radio ready Wyclef Jean track, Reach For The Stars, which sees him utter the cringe worthy line “Reach for the stars/ If you can see it you could be it.”
So what do we make of Free The Universe? If you go into it looking for an escape through a burst of joy, it will deliver. Similarly, you can bet festival crowds will go wild for the new sounds on offer here. If you’re looking for a cohesive album though, Free The Universe is not it. It chops and changes in its musical ambition too frequently to comfortably work itself into one groove. However, for a man like Diplo – who has his hands in just about every musical pie possible at the moment – it’s understandably all over the place. It might not free the universe, but it will certainly free the mind.