"The album feels like a party," Diplo tells Rolling Stone about Major Lazer's second album, Free the Universe. "At the same time, it's a concept album about freeing the universe from mental slavery."
The result, set for release on February 19th, juggles these clashing concepts with appropriately trippy results. "Major Lazer has always been a hybrid of futuristic and old, classic styles," the EDM DJ and producer (M.I.A., Beyoncé) explains. "I didn't put any giant pop records on there – it's a little more unique. Six of the songs are rootsy, six are clubby, and three are outer-space records that I don't know what they are."
To capture these sounds from uncharted sonic galaxies, Diplo revised his group's lineup. While original Major Lazer partner Switch shows up on a few new tracks, Diplo replaced the original, controversial frontman Skerrit Bwoy (who left following a religious conversion) with new members Walshy Fire and Jillionaire. "I first hooked up with Jillionaire in Trinidad when I was working on Kala with M.I.A.," Diplo says. "He was actually the first MC for Major Lazer before Skerrit Bwoy. A lot of people didn't appreciate Skerrit's misogyny, and then he found Jesus, so Jillionaire just made sense. Besides, it's a collaborative album – that's just the kind of stuff we do."
Indeed, the guests on Free the Universe are numerous and varied. Diplo includes Jamaican dancehall icons like Shaggy, Vybz Kartel and Elephant Man alongside indie mavericks like Santigold and Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors, dubstep massive master Flux Pavilion and Danielle Haim of the L.A. buzz band Haim. The juxtapositions just keep getting weirder and weirder as Free the Universe progresses: yes, that's Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig crooning a reggae ditty, "My Jessica," largely in German. "Scare Me," a New Wave rocker featuring Peaches on vocals, is an attempt to sound like "Devo goes dancehall." Elsewhere, Bruno Mars handles the memorable rude-boy chorus on "Bubble Butt": "Stick it out/ Show the world you got a bubble butt," flows the previously sweet "Just the Way You Are" singer.
"Bruno and I were doing something for No Doubt's last album, and I just put a beat on, and he was like 'Let me rap on this real quick,'" Diplo says. "Bang – it was done. And Amber, we brought her to Jamaica with her boyfriend, David [Longstreth, frontman of Dirty Projectors] to work on 'Get Free.' She wrote the hook, and he played the guitar; he's a crazy-ass, weird musician. Originally, the beat was called 'Boat Rhythm,' so she started singing about a boat!"
According to Diplo, there's a method to his cross-genre madness. "We know our lane," he says. "We're in that club world but have kids that like us on the indie side." The dance-floor anthems are balanced out by attempts to raise his audience's consciousness: the dub-meets-dubstep rave banger "Jah No Partial" is a "mad-as-fuck revolutionary track that's our homage to classic Prodigy," he explains. "It's got old-reggae samples combined with a big rave drop and a political vibe." "Reach for the Stars," meanwhile, is a soaring, Bob Marley-esque "feel-good positivity song" featuring Wyclef Jean.
"I've made enough songs about getting money or fucking bitches," Diplo says. "You always have to evolve – the minute you start building a moat around you to keep yourself safe, you're going to lose. Some songs are going to be about bubble butts, but now it's time to build in messages, too."
Track list for Free the Universe:
1. "You're No Good" (feat. Santigold, Vybz Kartel, Danielle Haim and Yasmin)
2. "Jet Blue Jet" (feat. Leftside, GTA, Razz and Biggy)
3. "Get Free" (feat. Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors)
4. "Jah No Partial" (feat. Flux Pavilion)
5. "Wind Up" (feat. Elephant Man and Opal)
6. "Scare Me" (feat. Peaches and Timberlee)
7. "Jessica" (feat. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend)
8. "Bumaye (Watch Out for This)" (feat. Busy Signal and Flexican)
9. "Keep Cool" (feat. Shaggy and Wynter Gordon)
10. "Sweat" (feat. Laidback Luke and Ms. Dynamite)
11. "Reach for the Stars" (feat. Wyclef Jean)
12. "Bubble Butt" (feat. Bruno Mars, Tyga and Mystic)
13. "Mashup the Dance" (feat. the Partysquad and Ward 21)
14. "Playground" (feat. Bugle and Arama)