There are always a few surprises when it comes to Major Lazer, Diplo’s down n’ dirty dancehall dabbles in as many genres as it counts collaborators among its ranks. True to the persona’s growing world of post-apocalyptic imagery, not to mention a cast of vividly rendered characters that would fit nicely into Hasbro’s old G. I. Joe toyline alongside Cobra Commander and Sgt. Slaughter, Major Lazer is Diplo’s way of playing mad scientist, funneling all kinds of random ideas into the figurative blender that is his soundboard. Major Lazer’s second full-length release, Free the Universe, offers more of everything that was stuffed into 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do, with a heavy emphasis on soupy reggae-tecnho mash-ups, trashy pop anthems, and strung-out electroclash numbers. While it’s no great leap from the sounds Diplo has long engineered with Santigold, M.I.A., Robyn, or even Das Racist, the album manages to keep things interesting with its unending, anything-goes orgy of grimy eclecticism.
Of course, not all of the ideas work as well as others. The Wyclef Jean vehicle “Reach for the Stars” is a clumsy, drippy mess, while the cartoonish, double-time “Scare Me” is a missed opportunity, featuring Jamaican hip-hop maven Timberlee in a role that would be better suited to the squeaky, deranged talent of Die Antwoord’s Yo-Landi. Diplo fares much better on Free the Universe’s linchpin track, “Jah No Partial,” a bristling house-reggae fusion featuring British DJ Flux Pavillion and a brooding, almost funereal sample of “Mr. Marshall” by island legend Johnny Osbourne.
Showing up via three different remixes interspersed across the album, “Jah No Partial” encapsulates what makes Major Lazer’s music such an effective hybrid of dance genres past and present: a basic musical refrain that serves as the backbone for countless layers of hypnotic beatcraft, alternating between muscular techno volleys, sweaty jungle drums, and swirling world rhythms, densely layered but never so clunky that they bog down the track. Diplo’s penchant for treble-heavy percussion in particular is evident on the Heroes x Villains remix of “Jah No Partial,” where DJs Daniel Disaster and Pete Heartless amplify the original’s crispness until it becomes almost electrically charged, fluctuating between the relaxed gait of Osbourne’s sample and a feverish club tempo.
Diplo finds a natural muse on “You’re No Good” with the inclusion of longtime collaborator Santigold. Sounding like a lost track from Master of My Make-Believe, the song mines the ’60s-gazing soul-pop of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black while unleashing Santi’s well-established, concentrated cool and a stuttering drumroll. Major Lazer’s strength is often in numbers, whether leaning on relative unknowns like Bugle and Arama on the braying, warbling “Playground” or turning to A-listers like Bruno Mars on the aptly named “Bubble Butt,” or Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on the washed-out, spacey “Jessica.” Free the Universe is, after all, a party album, and by using an energetic mix of faces both famous and obscure, Diplo keeps his grungy dancehall rave running on all cylinders.