As alluded to previously, I’ve been wanting to give you this album for a while now, and your last assignment was chosen at least in part as a setup for it. This week, you’ll be listening to Major Lazer‘s debut album, Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do.
Major Lazer is a laser-armed Jamaican commando from the future who rides around on a rocket skateboard fighting the undead. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a musical project originally started by Diplo and Switch — two producers who you may recall having produced most of your last assignment, M.I.A.’s Kala. Major Lazer is their take on the music of Jamaica — mostly dancehall and reggae, with a bit of good old-fashioned pop and electronic bullshit thrown in for good measure. They work extensively with Jamaican artists and Guns Don’t Kill People was recorded at Tuff Gong, a legendary recording studio in Kingston that’s been used by Bob Marley, among many others. Major Lazer is sparse and futuristic and wonky and disorienting in all the best ways.
…or at least, that’s what Major Lazer used to be. A short time after the release of Guns Don’t Kill People, Switch left the band due to ‘creative differences’, and while he did work on a few songs on the band’s second album, Major Lazer is now essentially just a Diplo solo project. It’s been kind of heartbreaking to watch such a unique and interesting band go from the astonishing nugget of weirdness and awesomeness that is Guns Don’t Kill People to what it is now — especially since it’s made them a huge international success. Their third album came out a few weeks ago, and while it’s got some decent tunes, it mostly just makes me sad. It’s full of trap and bass drops and white people, and the production is very noisy and in-your-face, but not in a good way. It’s not an album, it’s just a bunch of tracks meant for DJs to play in clubs. Sigh.
They used to be so much better, man. You know, before they sold out. *takes drag on clove cigarette*
But I digress. Seeing what happens to a band when you take half of it away is interesting from an academic standpoint, if nothing else. Diplo (who produced your standout Kala track ‘Paper Planes’) is very much a DJ at heart. He’s a straightforward guy who makes straightforward music. His reputation as an oddball producer is really only because he’s ahead of the curve in knowing who to work with and what sounds are on the bleeding edge of what’s ‘in’. (There’s a discussion about white appropriation of black culture to be had somewhere in regard to this album, and Diplo is probably at the centre of it.)
Switch, on the other hand, is much more of a producer. (He produced — well, he produced most of the rest of Kala, actually. And a lot of Matangi, which is why I love it so much.) In comparing old Major Lazer to new Major Lazer, he is very obviously the source of the weirdness and sparseness of the first album. He brings a level of restraint to to the studio that Diplo just can’t muster. I think that’s why the first album works so well — Switch is able to rein in Diplo’s madness and bring a level of focus to the project that it now seems to utterly lack. Switch is the reason Guns is a cohesive album rather than just a bunch of songs like the newer albums. (This is probably also why he works so well with M.I.A.)
Anyway, this is turning into more of rant about why I don’t like a band’s new music than actually saying anything useful about the record at hand, so I should probably wrap it up and hand it over to you. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Jamaican music, but if not, it’s time for a crash course in patois. This album is all over the place, but if you liked Kala, there’s definitely something here for you somewhere. It’s controlled chaos. It’s lightning in a jar. It’s Major Lazer. Booyaka.
PS: There’s also a Major Lazer cartoon. It’s essentially a sendup of bad 80s action cartoons like G.I. Joe, and it’s about as insane as you’d expect. Also, J.K. Simmons plays the president of future Jamaica. Yeah.