EDM is undoubtedly one of the more divisive genres in modern music. Even after the explosive success of giants like Skrillex and Deadmau5, questions continue to be asked of its longevity, its legitimacy as a music type, and the potential damage it deals to certain sectors of the electronic music community. As the movement proceeds through this troubling period, it’s important to keep in mind the primary reason such music exists in the first place: to inspire the expression of dance.
Rightly or wrongly, those who seek such encouragement will naturally enjoy albums like Major Lazer’s Free the Universe and care about little else, and my relationship with it is similarly mixed. As someone with a long-lasting issue with EDM in both its musical content and cultural context, it’s convenient to find here a record so blatantly demonstrative of the genre’s pitfalls. Formulaic song writing; a complete absence of dynamics; a detachment in structure… these are tropes of dance music that will continue to frustrate me, but which can also be somewhat forgiven for serving the primary purpose of dance music.
Without giving it too much of a free pass, Free the Universe benefits from being viewed more as a playlist than as an album. Its loose and detached quality doesn’t damage its function. The target audience are not going to get their heads turned due to a lack of album cohesion, so long as it delivers the occasional banger. To their credit, Major Lazer just about manage to deliver on this front.
The vital weakness — and this is the aspect that grates me about the genre like no other — is its sheer insincerity, found primarily in the vocal cuts. An awkward haze of false vitality shadows over the entire project, helped in no way by its erratic lineup — an overfilled roster that removes any ounce of sensation that this is a unified musical account. Free the Universe contains some great, dynamic tracks, and it contains some horribly obnoxious ones too. It’s a critical reflection of the genre it finds itself intoxicated in.
6 out of 10
Being introduced to EDM this way was like being introduced to a moving car. There’s a lot of noise in Free the Universe. A lot. And it won’t stop. It won’t stop. It won’t stop. If music really is the gaps between the notes then Free the Universe is sublimely vapid. I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to something so terrified of silence. There are points in the album that threaten to be listenable — softer, calmer efforts like “Reach for the Stars” or “Jessica” — but the poor dears are bludgeoned to death by the staggering din of the rest of the tracks. I’m a grumpy, reticent sort, so the all-in hedonist orgy extravaganza Major Lazer is going for is probably wasted on me. That’s its saving grace; if you’re not me you might not hate it. But me, I hear precious little humanity in Free the Universe. The album is a grotesque semblance of life, and all that lies behind its ghastly veneer is the reminder that death is coming and not soon enough. My warmest thanks to Kaya for the request.
4 out of 10
It seems that I’m in the minority here when it comes to this album and this brand of dance music. I enjoy the heavy beats, the overzealous sub bass and synths, even if some haven’t aged well in the three years since the album’s release. I enjoy this and similar albums like I enjoy fast food, it’s 'Junk Music' — listen to it all the time and I’d have a bland musical experience which missed critical things that are needed to fully enjoy music. I understand why people stay away from it in the same way as they stay away from junk food, but I give into, and enjoy, more audacious music like this.
Where Free the Universe falls down for me is its complete lack of consistency. “Jet Blue Jet” followed by “Get Free” and in turn “Jah No Partial” leaves me jarred and stunned on every listen for all the wrong reasons. Whether or not there was a thought process behind this, or Major Lazer were assuming the iTunes generation of music consumer wouldn’t be listening to the tracks in that order anyway, I can’t start to guess at, but in an album review it can’t get a free pass.
As with many past reviews, and in a similar vein to the track ordering issue, I also get the feeling that the album had a lot of indecision surrounding it, with a near hour long play time and fourteen tracks, it feels as though a more concise dance record could’ve been cut from this one. There are some great tracks here, with “Get Free” being the one that I return for regularly, but even given my justifications above, there’s a lot to wade through to find the golden nuggets.
6 out of 10