Joke About Jamaica
Major Lazer's Cartoon Dancehall
You have to admire the advance marketing/branding campaign for Major Lazer, the new collaborative project of in-demand DJ/producers Diplo and Switch (M.I.A., Santigold).
The story goes: "Major Lazer is a Jamaican commando who lost his arm in the secret Zombie War of 1984. The U.S. military rescued him and repurposed experimental lazers as prosthetic limbs. Since then, Major Lazer has been a hired renegade soldier for a rogue government operating in secrecy underneath the watch of M5 and the CIA. His cover is that of a dancehall nightclub owner from Trinidad. His true mission is to protect the world from the dark forces of evil that live just under the surface of a civilized society. He fights vampires and various monsters, parties hard, and has a rocket-powered skateboard."
A few months ago, images started surfacing of the Major—a thick-lined pen-and-ink cartoon character with shades, a beret, and his namesake weapon—cut and pasted into tabloid photos of various celebrities (Rihanna, Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson). The video for Major Lazer's first single, "Hold the Line," cast the major in a perfectly choppy, low-budget G.I. Joe–style cartoon, complete with an advertisement for (possibly real?) action figures. He has an iPhone app and a YouTube dance-video contest sponsored by Red Stripe. Really, it's just a hell of a multimedia blitz—call it Gorillaz warfare. Those poor zombies never stood a chance.
Major Lazer the duo's debut album, Guns Don't Kill People... Lazers Do, is meant to be part of Major Lazer the character's deep cover, with Diplo and Switch drafted to perform production duties. In fact, the twosome have drafted a small army of their own to lend guest vocals and coproductions to the album, including Santigold, Crookers, Amanda Blank, and a host of Jamaican artists who, depending on your fluency with dancehall, may be less familiar: Mr. Lex, Ms. Thing, Mr. Vegas, Vybz Kartel.
Diplo and Switch are clearly no strangers to this music or its makers—they're professionals who make their living in record shops and recording studios—but it's safe to say they're counting on an audience whose knowledge of dub and dancehall might not necessarily extend any further than what they've sampled in their previous productions or occasionally mixed into their DJ sets. So Guns is more of a casual survey, a vacation to Jamaica, than it is an academic guided tour. This isn't a Soul Jazz anthology we're talking about here; it's a Saturday-morning cartoon. It's dancehall for dummies, but it's not (all) dumb.
"Hold the Line" opens the album with a highly entertaining everything-is-more assault: a surf-guitar loop always just on the verge of wiping out, backed by a thumping 3/4 beat and swarming with goofy sound effects (a horse neighing, a baby's drooly cry, a phone ringing then vibrating "like a Nokia"), over all of which Mr. Lex raps in a deep, authoritative patois and Santigold provides chopped-up cheers. "Can't Stop Now" is a more traditionally pleasant rocksteady lope. "Mary Jane" is a harmlessly sinister, circus-clowning ode to marijuana, all drum line, drunk brass, and air-horn exclamations backing playfully nerdy but agile raps and a pitch-shifted chorus of "roll it, twist it, light it up." "What U Like" lays sexually explicit toasting over minimalist, darkly echoing percussion. (Note: While Guns' sexual politics are certainly heteronormative, they thankfully avoid, at least as far as this reviewer can tell, the homophobia that plagues some Jamaican exports; plus, they're pro-condom.) "Keep It Goin' Louder" is an inexplicable but perfectly convincing foray into flirty Auto-Tuned club pop.
If you wanted to be a drag about it, you could use Major Lazer to re-up that old "Diplo as cultural ambassador versus Diplo as cultural appropriator" debate. In any case, at least Diplo and Switch are more friendly ambassadors/appropriators than, say, the Bug. But there's a more entertaining spin on globalism to be had here, and it's provided by the appearance, on the overtly comic interlude "Baby," of Prince Zimboo, a character as cartoonish as the major himself. Zimboo is an African royal of dubious origins who claims to have 999 wives and who punctuates his overaccented rhymes with an infectious, abbreviated "heh" (Slate's Jonah Weiner aptly describes Zimboo as "something like the African Borat"). If you're the type who might get offended by the Jamaican caricature of the major (or the pale white mugs of Diplo and Switch inset for contrast on the show's posters), Zimboo has some African bush he'd like to sell you.
Ultimately, Guns is a fun, frivolous excursion from a couple of top producers—it's nice to see Switch getting out from behind all that twitchy house he's so good at—and, who knows, it might just turn a few heads on to some dancehall of the flesh-and-blood variety. Or it might just sell some action figures.