I was introduced to Major Lazer through the Amber Coffman-featuring lead single “Get Free” from sophomore album, Free The Universe. For a long time, the name was little more than a faceless producer with evident connections to pop music’s inner circle. A bizarro cartoon-character-fronted side project pumping out summer dance anthems with dancehall flair. To this day, Major Lazer’s image is hard to nail. Since the departure of DJ Switch, the group has included a transient lineup helmed by producer Thomas Wesley Pentz, most commonly known as Diplo, and while it is no mean feat to ignore the negative journalistic buzz that follows the multi-million dollar producer, it is hard to argue that his music doesn’t speak for itself. Diplo is steeped in controversy, scalded by Internet scorch marks of a Taylor Swift feud, fallout with M.I.A., and cries of cultural appropriation. A quick Google search will turn up many very valid reasons to hate on Diplo, to the point where it’s almost too easy to do so.
More relevantly, there is no question in anyone’s mind that Major Lazer’s masterminds know how to write a good pop song. What may be in question is their ability to continue to surprise their audience. To not pander to crowds of wasted teens, to give us more than the trustworthy formula of dancehall beat + hook + chopped vocal + drop.
The threads that ran through their freshman and sophomore albums tie Peace Is The Mission to the Major Lazer mandate. Featured artists Nina Sky and Jovi Rockwell hold feature spots in two of the album’s promotional singles, returning to the project after their involvement in 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do. This album will not alienate Major Lazer fans in the slightest. What is different about this collection is harder to pin down, a subtler shift. The main change lies in the album’s short, direct nature; Peace is a compact 32 minutes end-to-end, and compared to its nearly hour-long predecessors, it leaves listeners with a clear, definable impression. This simplicity could leave the album with the risk of becoming boring or predictable, but Major Lazer hangs onto their trademark experimental oddities, allowing each listen to unearth new discoveries.
Far more notable than the festival-ready EDM that these producers can churn out with predictable ease, is the way these songs feel like a cohesive album, as opposed to a playlist of disjointed, albeit impressive, remixes. A collection of songs brought together by more than shared authorship and genre, a cycle and continuum that belongs in the order it was packaged in, the project’s third album is perhaps most surprising in its unity, in its coherency.
These songs are big: patchwork quilts of influences that Major Lazer’s producers bring to the table, towering high enough to deserve the apocalyptic album names that accompany them. They have so many interlocking pieces that it would be incredibly easy to become distracting and dizzying – yet the album as a whole feels smooth. We run through roots reggae singers to pop princesses in 32 minutes, and manage to avoid whiplash, perhaps the producers’ most impressive achievement to date.
This integration of diverse vocalists into equally diverse sonic landscapes is something that Major Lazer has perfected to a tee. They know how much is too much or too little, and they’ve struck a balance between simple, repetitive lyrics and a jungle of chopped and skewed distortion. Vocalists are given space in their immense sound, making sense of a multitude of competing styles and rhythms.
Lead single “Lean On”, a punchy, moombahton banger featuring DJ Snake and MØ, was to be the standout star of this album, finding chart-topping success across Europe and North America. However, the underdog favourites have proven to be “Night Riders”, featuring Travi$ Scott, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, and Mad Cobra, and “Be Together” featuring Wild Belle. The two longest tracks of the album, they stand out in their deviation from a pervasive sugary-pop undercurrent, providing a much-needed break in tempo, a breath in EDM sprints. “Night Riders” is the grittiest four minutes of this release, a heavy, pyromaniac catharsis. In “Be Together”, Natalie Bergman of Wild Belle opens the album with throaty hums akin to a funeral dirge, and the song that follows has a spaciousness to it that hints at something darker, flitting between melancholy and sinister.
The genre-hopping vocal features on previous albums seem to hit their pace in this latest work. Calling this album the collaboration’s most digestible might be interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek synonym for boring if applied to most other groups. For Major Lazer, the label implies the finesse with which they have created their tightest-playing release yet, a triumph of honed experience and direction.
They have gone full pop without leaving behind the experimental weird factor that sets them apart, and the narrative holds.