Who better to thrive in our island-obsessed pop multiverse than Diplo? A decade after he and Switch produced M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” the tropical collage favored by the duo, who officially became Major Lazer in 2009, dominates the airwaves. Acts as disparate as Daddy Yankee, Ed Sheeran, and the Chainsmokers share the Top 10, indulging in mid-tempo riddims and stadium-worthy hooks that take cues from dancehall.
Switch departed in 2011, but Major Lazer endures. The producers Walshy Fire and Jillionaire traded in any hint of countercultural signifiers for pop’s big tent and a collection of of-the-moment co-stars on its 2015 album Peace is the Mission. Know No Better, a new EP, released with little warning last week, mines similar territory. The first two tracks alone feature Quavo, Sean Paul, Travis Scott, J. Balvin and Camila Cabello—add the Major Lazer trio and that’s the kind of dizzying star-power on which Fast and the Furious franchises are founded.
Those initial two songs, along with a third, “Particula,” are the highlights on this brisk clubby delight of an EP, which doesn’t quite clear the 20-minute mark. Each has a standout section; on the title track, it’s Travis Scott, gleefully surfing a thumping bouncy-castle of a 4/4 beat in his opening verses. Balvin adds real feeling to the bridge of his feature “Buscando Huellas” the strongest overall song on the EP. And the Afrobeat-influenced “Particula” features the catchiest hook, thanks to the Nigerian vocalist Ice Prince and some nicely timed synths.
Mix and match those three sections and you might have a candidate for the song of the summer. But consigned to their separate slots, they serve as mere scene-setters on tracks that convey only mood and nothing more. All three songs are conceptually bankrupt, lacking even the simplest sentiments to coax listeners to return. That might help explain why the rappers here seem so adrift: Quavo, Sean Paul, and Jidenna slide by in near-anonymity, unable to hinge their verses on even the thinnest outcropping of meaning.
Still, no listener in a summery state of mind would object to the three openers, nor to “Sua Cara,” a too-short samba-influenced ballad featuring the Brazilian singer Anitta, whose thin, pretty voice may remind American listeners of the Nina Sky twins. It’s the heavier, more club-ready songs—“Jump” and the soca cut “Front of the Line” —that fall entirely flat, lacking the jots of inspiration that collaborators are able to provide elsewhere.
Diplo’s appropriator-in-chief act notwithstanding, it’s possible that the American producer simply has his hands in too many pots. In a recent interview on Beats One, he enthusiastically described the many projects he has in the works—a collaboration with Mark Ronson, another, rap-themed EP under his own name, a full Major Lazer album coming in the fall—while habitually forgetting who it was that he was actually working with. An eye for emerging talent has always served Major Lazer in good stead, but relying on features can only get an act so far, even in the most welcoming of pop environments. And as fun as it is at times, Know No Better doubles as a testament to the result of spreading a handful of good ideas too thin.
It’s been almost a decade since Wale released The Mixtape About Nothing, an earnest collection of well-rapped thinkpieces couched in a savvy, “Seinfeld”-referencing framework. The sitcom was a tempting lure to attract the internet tastemakers, and they helped introduce the D.C.-area rapper to the mainstream. But early acclaim came with high expectations, from both Wale’s audience and from Wale himself. Ever since, he’s been striving to reclaim the near-universal praise earned by that mixtape.
Five studio albums, and one mid-career reinvention later, we arrive at Shine, the rapper’s fourth full-length with MMG. Wale has promoted the new project as a record overflowing with contentment, thanks in part to a newborn daughter, Zyla. (The album’s title is an acronym: “Still here ignoring negative energy.”) In an interview with Complex, he said he wanted to put less pressure on himself. “I put myself through a lot of doom and gloom,” he said. “And I’m just like, ‘Wale, man, just be happier.’”
Accordingly, Shine is a more buoyant album than his back-to-basics 2015 offering, The Album About Nothing. There’s not a song here that feels grounded in much more than the desire to enjoy the moment or at least feign doing so well enough to make radio playlists. The album hopscotches its way through a varied set of production styles, with Wale performing his usual acrobatic routine through hoops positioned by marketers and focus groups. The Don Cannon-produced “Colombia Heights (Te Llamo)” refers to the largely-Hispanic D.C. neighborhood and features the reggaeton superstar J Balvin, whose presence livens up a meandering track.
“My Love” and “Fine Girl” chase the Caribbean muse that Drake has exploited so successfully. The former, which features Major Lazer, Dua Lipa and Wizkid and on which Wale doesn’t rap until nearly two minutes in, is pleasant enough to wiggle into a spot on a backyard party playlist. But “Fine Girl” stumbles around blindly, wasting features from the Nigerian artists Olamide and Davido. On these songs, and many others, Wale is there but not there, his lyrics contractually obligated, though every so often he finds time to drop a regrettable line, like “she penetrating my mind, I penetrate that physique,” on the single “PYT.”
Occasionally, on tracks where he’s more present, the mood lures the listener in, as on “Thank God,” an opener meant to sell the idea that Wale is through with pettiness; he uses the orchestral Cool & Dre beat to coo at his daughter, announcing “that feminist side come out when Zyla there” and turning the hook over to the R&B singer Rotimi. “Scarface, Rozay Gotti,” a surprisingly tender tribute to some of Wale’s rap heroes, induces a smile as the rapper sings drunkenly, then launches into deft, empty raps about courtside seats at a Wizards game.
Still, there are hints—beyond that “doth protest too much” acronym—that Wale can’t help but relive the past. His flow remains flexible but he’s fixated on the subjects that have long obsessed him: success, wealth, and the haters who are blocking his path to success and wealth. A strange hook on “Thank God” is preoccupied with his enemies, despite the fact that he’s never had a longstanding public beef with any relevant rapper.
Shine isn’t dark. But it feels like an exercise in avoidance as if Wale took the advice to ease up too far. Even “Smile,” the type of conscious song that animated Mixtape About Nothing, feels dispassionate and obligatory. And for those who were listening to his mixtapes a decade ago, “Running Back” a Lil Wayne feature and one of the best songs on Shine, doubles as a yardstick for what’s happened since. On Wale’s first Wayne feature, you could hear him striving to compete. A decade later, both rappers sound like they’re working solely for the paycheck, their pro forma raps clanging out emptily as a fantastic little sing-song DJ Spinz beat does the heavy lifting. Listening to Shine, you can’t help but think that Wale has finally dropped his rigorous standards for himself. He hadn’t met them in several years, but before this, he was still trying.