If they ever make a definitive teen movie about high school during Obama's first term they'd better use Major Lazer's "Keep It Going Louder" for the climactic party scene. Picture the star-crossed lovers—him in a KidRobot snapback, her in a gold lamé American Apparel bikini—locking eyes across the pool. No song better sums up the last days of pre-Instagram abandon than the song's cartoonish mix of trance, dancehall, and bloghouse riffs. It's a can of Sparks compressed into a low-bitrate mp3. Major Lazer have never topped it.
Earlier this week the group—whose current lineup includes Walshy Fire and Jillionaire—released a new six-song EP called Know No Better. The release finds Diplo back where he started—working primarily with emerging artists from around the globe. It's a relief to hear him return to his roots after years spent operating in pop music's most stratospheric realms.
By the time Major Lazer's debut album Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do came out in 2009, Diplo was nearly a decade into his guerilla assault on the staid indie-rock establishment. Years of Hollertronix forums and M.I.A mixtapes and favela-scavenging trips finally paid off—Guns Don't Kill People... transformed him from a scrappy blog favorite into a pop star in his own right. Beyonce flipped "Pon De Floor," he dated Katy Perry, this happened. At the turn of the decade the music industry was finally recovering from file-sharing and adapting to the internet, and Diplo found himself perfectly placed to serve as a bridge between established stars and millennial audiences. In between racking up production credits for everyone under the sun, Major Lazer became the canvas on which he explored methods for infusing radio-oriented pop with the global dance sounds he'd always been drawn to.
That dynamic culminated in Major Lazer's 2015 album Peace Is the Mission, which largely replaced Caribbean vocalists with mid-major Western pop stars like Ellie Goulding, MØ, and Elliphant. Though he and his collaborators still incorporated dancehall-flavored rhythms, they also mixed in the kind of bouncy post-EDM synth hooks he'd been making with Jack Ü. The result was music that felt tame compared to the sunny explosion of Major Lazer's first record. It was also wildly popular—"Lean On" rode its trop-pop groove to billions of streams and a number four slot on the Billboard charts. Meanwhile, artists like Machel Montano and Wizkid were largely shoehorned onto the back-end of the album's Extended Version.
You can't fault Diplo too much for this—both the world and the music industry changed dramatically between 2009 and 2015. But it's safe to say that his choices cost Major Lazer some of its edge and identity. Peace Is The Mission revealed an existential crisis—is Major Lazer a vehicle for Diplo to showcase talent from underrepresented communities, or a way for him to pair pop stars with trendy "tropical" beats?
Thankfully, the group's new Know No Better EP finds them tacking back toward the former. The six-song release leads off with the title track, featuring Travis Scott, Quavo, and former Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello—everyone sounds great over the warm dancehall-lite groove, and Diplo keeps things moving with a chirpy synth part. Better still is "Sua Cara," a samba-influenced cut that features Brazilian singers Anitta and Pablo Vittar. Though Diplo can't resist another "Where Are Ü Now"-style post-EDM wordless hook, he wisely lets their voices take center stage for most of the song.
EDM-dancehall and soca fusions have been part of Major Lazer's repertoire for years. They make an appearance here on "Front of the Line" and "Jump"—featuring Busy Signal, Konshens, and Machel Montano, respectively. Both rely a bit too heavily on brash festival-ready synths for headphone listening, but they'll undoubtedly decimate stages on Major Lazer's summer tour.
But the true gem here is "Particula," which features South African vocalist Nasty_c, rising Nigerian MCs Ice Prince and Patoranking, and a mercifully low-key Jidenna. The song captures what makes Afrobeats such a compelling sound, with hip-swiveling rhythms balanced by succulent guitar plucks and breezy melodies.
Know No Better succeeds because it's stuffed with rising artists given space to let their talent shine. Clearly Diplo's still got his ear to the ground, as he traces the fluid connective tissue of modern global pop from Lagos to Trinidad and Tobago, Rio De Janeiro and beyond. His work with Walshy Fire and Jillionaire seems like its back to chasing sounds, not hits. Yet with Major Lazer's fourth LP Love is the Weapon rumored to be on the horizon this year, questions remain—is this EP a permanent return to form, or just a brief detour on the long march to chart dominance?
Ezra Marcus is on Twitter.