Until recently, I thought that Diplo and Major Lazer were two different people. Alas, I was wrong. Diplo is Major Lazer, Major Lazer being his reggae-ish alter-ego. Although many of the songs on Free the Universe stray pretty far from reggae. And I have to say — this is a very difficult album to digest. Some of the songs have as many as four guests on them. Some of the guests are quite famous. Others, I have no clue who they are. So, how can I say that so and so really shines on such and such track when I can’t identify who’s singing which parts? And so I will try to focus on the tracks where I’m familiar with the guests.
One of the more interesting tracks on the album is “Jessica” featuring Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. The song sounds like a blend of reggae and dub at times, and some of Ezra’s surprisingly seductive vocals are undeniably reggae style. But there are other portions of the song that almost have a trip-hop vibe and Ezra sounds really out there on those tracks, like he took several Ativan before recording it. Cheers to him though, as it’s always nice to hear a familiar artist try something new.
Speaking of artists trying something new, Amber of Dirty Projectors lends her sultry voice to “Get Free.” “I just want to be, I just want to dream,” she sings, pleading, using her voice in a way that it’s never quite been used in Dirty Projectors. Her voice is also especially emotive here. There are moments when her voice sounds like she’s yearning for life itself, trying to work her way out of quicksand. But at other times she sounds much more confident. Or hopeful. Kudos to Diplo for letting her vocals be the most prominent element of this track. On some songs on the album the vocals take a backseat to the beats but that’s not the case here and you ultimately have one heck of an R&B/reggae tune that screams to be a single with lots of interesting remixes.
Old-timer Shaggy and uber-contemporary Wynter Gordon join forces on “Keep Cool,” which starts off like an R&B ballad with a heavy as hell beat. Then the beats intensify and there’s some dark-wave synth buried behind intense beats that are mostly reggae but with a sleek dubstep influence. “I wasn’t born to serve you, I was born to love,” Wynter sings, her voice smooth as silk, the one beautiful thing in this otherwise gloomy track. It fits though. In fact, it’s what makes the song a winner. This song would just be a well-produced but typical post reggae track without her sugary sweetness.
The dubstep influence is even stronger in “Jah No Partial” featuring Flux Pavilion. The backbeat is always reggae, as are the slick vocals. But there are parts of this song that are totally dubstep. Or what I imagine we’ll be calling post dubstep in a few years. Instead of “wub wub” we get “woo, woo, woo” here. Deal with it.
As for the straight-forward reggae tracks, the best is “Watch Out For This (Bumaye)” featuring Busy Signal, The Flexican & FS Green. I’m not familiar with any of those artists, but suffice to say that nobody sounds awful here. On the contrary, they deliver their lyrics in a razor sharp, this-ain’t-your-Bob-Marley-reggae, in-your-face vibe. And it’s great. Between the punchy reggae beats and the attention-grabbing vocals, this song is sure to stand out even if you don’t care for the album.
Ultimately, this is an album that contemporary reggae fans who don’t take things too seriously should immediately love. As for those who do take reggae seriously, well, they might find the mix of reggae and other styles here a bit offensive.
For other music junkies who don’t listen to much reggae, it might take a few tries before you really feel this one, but it’s well worth it if you stick with it.
As for your casual music fans who don’t really keep up with modern music very much, it might feel like culture shock and will probably convince them that they should just keep listening to their Journey and Survivor cassettes.
And some will surely bitch and complain that this isn’t really Jamaican reggae and that Diplo has no business making these reggae albums.
As for me, I’m going to keep on listening and I suspect I’ll like it a little bit more with each time. I already like it quite a bit, hence this positive review.