If there’s something eyebrow-raising about two white hipsters’ appropriating an international black culture for fun and profit, Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do, the first collaboration between Diplo and Switch under the guise of Major Lazer, does its damnedest to make that a non-issue for much of its running time. Ultimately, it’s the sheer quality of their work and the respect they show for the diverse musical landscape of Jamaica that make the loudest statements about the duo’s intentions.
Over the course of Guns, Major Lazer tackles a host of sub-genres of dancehall music, including Switch’s trademark fidget and Diplo’s signature Brazilian baile, and filters them through a Jamaican riddim framework. Their instincts for this style are generally spot-on: The incendiary, minimalist “Hold the Line” features Santigold and Mr. Lexx trading verses over a looped vocal hook that recalls Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” and it’s one of the year’s hottest singles. “Jump Up,” co-produced by Crookers (fresh off his remix of Kid Cudi’s “Day N Nite”) might be even better, with its 4/4 dance-floor stomp making for an unshakable groove. “Anything Goes” splits the difference between contemporary ragga and of-the-moment Southern rap and is the album’s most politically ferocious cut.
It’s a shame that the record loses its focus halfway through. The weed anthem “Mary Jane” aims for humor and misses badly, while “Keep It Goin’ Louder,” featuring Nina Sky and Ricky Blaze, is a pretty terrific, slick electro-pop cut on its own terms but is badly out of place here. Still, it’s no surprise that focus is a problem considering that the album’s conceit—apparently, Major Lazer is imagined as a Jamaican commando whose prosthetic laser limbs are the result of his role in the great Zombie War of 1984—is a complete nonstarter. Guns comes with a plot that has absolutely no bearing on the album’s songs or list of guest collaborators. That its ostensible backstory makes for little more than some colorful, comic-inspired cover art keeps the album’s focus where it should be: on some of the year’s most compelling beats.