Diplo has traversed the rocky ground of cross-border instrumental osmosis. Having produced M.I.A.’s career defining hits (“Paper Planes”), he’s no stranger to sucking out the end-product tonnage of savants who digested their musical influences not from the radio, but from the drum circle. His aptness for casting a net over regional energies is matched only by the speed with which he aims its darts at the mess-hall collage of Western mainstream electronica, seeing what sticks. Now we think it’s a no-brain-er that Caribbean up-kickers, Portuguese soccer anthem horn breakouts and Jamaican slow-jamz work in the states, but credit’s due to Diplo’s frontier Trans-Atlantic delivery.
Naturally, the goals are now loftier. Namely, freedom. Of the universe. Free the Universe may sound like a hodgepodge of non-sensical dance music dubbed by indie kids and self-anointed “musical ambassadors”. What it really is, according to the conquistador himself, is “a concept album about freeing the universe from mental slavery”. Guess the bubble butts are just the spoils of liberation.
Freedom, as we’ve learned learned from erstwhile movements in the recent past, comes with the calculation to anticipate readiness of the masses, the strategy to make something different come about, and a vision worth getting behind. FTU has none of the above. It also revisits the fallacy of a leadership vacuum. Not only does Diplo fail at establishing a unifying voice (with the exception of spoken verse allusions to “Major Lazer” at the beginning of almost every track), but the album’s only track-to-track connection is that a new, shiny star will tackle the vocals.
Therein lies the gnawing flaw of an album that sounds more like high-cover benefit night at the club than anything evoking a sober thought, let alone a concept. Try this experiment. Choose any two FTU tracks at random. Use a bulleted list to track any clues that the songs belong to the same record. Ready, begin.
At the end of the day, no matter the write-up, FTU is a dance album, which lowers the bar somewhere between the floor and the door handle. Sure enough, the percussive breakdown of “Jah No Partial” is a ruptured dance-floor promenade. The layered, high-altitude beat generators that introduce “Bubble Butt” are quickly contagious. Album closer “Playground” starts with a middle-eastern sounding synth before settling into lush horns, Jamaica-beats underpinning a killer track with the type of steady, dynamic buildup that gives hope to the album’s freeing promise. These tracks sound great on college radio, both novel and canorous. Put them together on a full-length LP, though, and you’re likely to drown out any mystique by virtue of its sheer pointlessness.
Then there’s the all-star vocal team. Just like a bball team overzealous with its three point shots, an album that lives by guest vocalists dies by them too. So of course “Get Free” is brilliant, as is any song employing Amber Coffman’s signature “Baby” yelp. “Jessica” stars Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who’s good enough to absorb any sun-drenched reggae beat with subtle drifts of falsetto and vocal distortion. You don’t need a masters in fine arts to know that good singers can carry mediocre songs. Conversely, when a song sounds like Alanis Morissette covering Blink-182 (“Keep Cool”), it doesn’t matter which high notes you can reach. It’s still grating.
Taken out of FTU’s discombobulated world, “Get Free” and “Playground” are haunting, hypnotic and phenomenal (if not a little too similar). Nothing I write should dissuade you from checking them out. You wont be dissapointed. Otherwise, there is something so disingenuous about the album’s explicit promise that it would be offensive if it wasn’t so dull. As it stands, it’s worth nary a thought, let alone a second a listen.