Photo Credit: Maria José Govea
Something important happened in the last 2-3 years – well, besides the pandemic, climate change, and never-ending political turmoil -: the standard for mainstream music increased exponentially. Chalk it up to “Bad Guy” or “Old Town Road” – songs that paved a weirder and wilder path for Top 40 music – but there’s no denying that the last few year’s chart-toppers (“All Too Well”, “Levitating”, “Blinding Lights”) have been a cut above what we came to expect during the 2010s. All of this is great for listeners, but it puts the once-omnipresent DJ Diplo – who found success in the 2010s with anthemic tunes that don’t bear thinking too long or hard about – in a difficult position. Nonetheless, his first solo full-length in nearly two decades – which sees him return to his House music wheelhouse – should be a slam dunk; should being the primary verb.
Publicly, Diplo – real name, Thomas Pentz – projects ample confidence; he posts almost-naked videos on TikTok and offers unprovoked Twitter commentary on the bodies of eminently more talented female musicians. Yet there’s nothing particularly confident-sounding about Diplo’s fourth solo album. It would be unfair to say Diplo sounds like a newcomer on Diplo – it’s all very polished and technically proficient stuff – but despite being his self-titled album, it leaves us no closer to finding out who the real Diplo is.
Pentz has described his new LP as more akin to a mixtape than an album and, true enough, there’s the sort of mishmash of styles one would expect from a mixtape – from pop-rock infused opener “Don’t Forget My Love” to the atmospheric James Blake cosplay of “Your Eyes”, all the way to the particularly regrettable, yet mercifully brief, midway detour to House-rock. Yet, Diplo lacks the free-wheeling spontaneity and organic vibrancy of all the best mixtapes. Scattered across Diplo’s 53 minutes are lyrics about wild nights, kissing in the dark, and heady love-sickness. Yet, sonically these songs are all too insipid to properly convey the passion their lyrics so desperately try to get across. Never has House music sounded as sleepy, and as frankly uninteresting, as it does on tracks like “Your Eyes” or “Promises.”
Most of Diplo is like this; too tired to be wired and too safe to be truly awful. As aforementioned, there is a brief exception to this, that comes in the form of House-rap crossover tracks “Right 2 Left” and “Humble” – the former of which consists almost entirely of one line being repeated over and over again. These two songs form the album’s most ambitious moments and, inarguably, also its least successful; if it wasn’t for the earnestness of this project, you could almost be convinced they were intended as parodies.
Diplo yields better results when its focus is narrower and its scope is smaller. There’s nothing revolutionary here and unless Diplo can invent a time machine to take us back to 2016, there’s nothing here with any remote chance of becoming a Billboard Hot 100 hit. At its best moments, however, Diplo recalls the simple joys of House music – the same simple joys that the DJ successfully tapped into on hits with the likes of Sia, Dua Lipa, Labrinth, and Justin Bieber. “One By One” combines subtle synth infusions with a driving beat to create a sound that’s actually capable of capturing the essence of the song’s lyrics about conquering the night.
“Let You Go” and “Forget About Me (Nite Version)”, meanwhile, are nothing revolutionary – with a predictable and very-2010s build-and-drop set-up – but you can imagine them breathing new life into the party in the club at 2 am. It’s these back-to-basics moments where Diplo does its best, but even then it’s hard to say the album excels at these points. After nearly two decades in the music industry, one would hope Diplo would be able to create something bolder, bigger, and more distinctively his own than Diplo.