Initially a collaboration between producers Diplo (MIA, Santigold, Amanda Blank, Die Antwoord) and Switch (MIA, Santigold, Beyonce, Xtina), Major Lazer’s debut was the summer album of 2009. A dance album that blended reggae, dubstep, reggaton, and dancehall, Guns Don’t Kill People was an eclectic, refreshing, and quite frankly, fun album perfect for block parties, beach bonfires, and sweaty, sweaty clubs. Aside form the occasional remix EP, the duo has been rather silent since. Free the Universe (Secretly Canadian) breaks that silence just in time for the turning of the seasons.
On their second outing however, Major Lazer doesn’t quite capture the frenetic dancefloor energy of Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do. While Free the Universe maintains the general vibe of Guns (summery melodies, an electronic foundation layered with hints of Caribbean flavor), it doesn’t pack quite the same punch. My initial listens left me feeling that something was missing. After some digging, I discovered that in fact, Switch broke off from Major Lazer in 2011, leaving it primarily a Diplo project.
The impact of that split is noticeable. For example Given Diplo’s own predilections, the album boasts more explicitly dubstep tracks (“Jah No Partial,” “Mashup the Dance”). On the whole, the album also seems to veer toward a more commercial approach, evident not only in the disc’s more accessible tracks (“Keep Cool,” “Reach for the Stars,” “Bubble Butt”) but also in its selection of guest artists (Wyclef Jean, Bruno Mars, Shaggy).
While these tracks are less enjoyable on account of their capitulations to mass audiences, Free the Universe isn’t without its standout tracks. The Ezra Koenig-led “Jessica” flows along a laid back rocksteady groove; “Jet Blue Jet” approaches the artistry and humor of Guns; “Your No Good” places crowd favorite Santigold front and center, though the song fails to reach the heights of their previous collaboration (Guns‘ “I’ll Make Ya” aka “Hold the Line”).
Ultimately, Free the Universe doesn’t fully satiate the anticipation built up by the group’s four-year absence. Diplo and Switch are innovative producers in their own right, but the magic of the Major Lazer was the product of their collaboration. By removing one half of the force behind the project, the current iteration of Major Lazer is marred by a noticeable void, indicating that perhaps the group should have been laid to rest with Switch’s departure.