Available on: Atlantic Records
“I’ve always made music for that kid in me,” Skrillex told Complex last year. It’s a quote that goes a long way to understanding the EDM figurehead’s music, which feels like it owes more to child-like wonderment than overindulging in molly water at a huge festival. It’s probably part of why those outside the EDM sphere are willing to overlook the lurid excesses of his music; while some of his peers pose like messiahs or grapple with on-stage existential crises while playing drudging trance-house, Skrillex seems to understand the ridiculousness of a culture that demands him to have a logo to sell himself and eight trucks to ferry around a DJ booth shaped like an alien mothership.
Back in 2009 Simon Reynolds memorably used the expression “scato-splatterbass” to describe 16 Bit’s ‘Chainsaw Calligraphy’, a track that could be seen as the prototype for Skrillex’s strangely endearing parody of dubstep. Reynolds said he’d rather be “in the midst of a crowd aving it apeshit” to 16 Bit than listening to Joy Orbison’s ‘Hyph Mngo’, and though many questioned his comments, the popularity of Skrillex in 2015 only goes to show he might have had a point. Pure visceral pleasure is probably the only rational explanation as to why Skrillex’s music is so popular – no matter which way you try to spin it, he just doesn’t make music that’s all that easy for non-EDM fans to listen to.
The idea of an album of collaborations between Skrillex and Diplo – whose solo material is similarly hard to digest – is likely to be difficult to swallow for most people. However, their debut album as Jack Ü – Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü – is not entirely what you’d expect. For a start, it has a lot of hooks, something largely missing from their solo output. The combination of pop and EDM is nothing new, but rarely has it felt quite so enjoyable as it does here. Compared to the productions of Calvin Harris or David Guetta, whose middle-of-the-road take on the big room sound seems tailor-made to make the most money possible on music synch deals, Jack Ü is – to be honest – a pretty weird experience.
Take the appearance of 2 Chainz for example on ‘Febreze’. “Yeah, yeah, I’m the shit,” he raps. “I should have Febreze on me.” It’s a puerile lyric, but one that fits with the lumbering, oversized trap instrumental sitting underneath. Skrillex and Diplo already make big music, but here it’s like they’ve inflated pop, R&B and hip hop full of helium and constructed a mixtape that’s as big and buoyant as it needs to be to complement the already caricatured world they already exist in.
Even the tracks that sound like they’re aimed at a festival crowd feel come across like they’ve been outlined in big, bold, manga-style inks. ‘Beats Knocking’, ‘Jungle Bae’ and ‘Holla Out’ all take the well-worn templates of commercial trap, reggaeton and dubstep, making something even more cartoonish out of them. ‘Take Ü There’ isn’t unlike Sigma’s overblown D&B take on Kanye’s ‘Nobody To Love’, but at least has the wit to open a hatch underneath the cloying peak into a rubbery drop of trampoline trap. While these moments are often difficult to tolerate much of in Skrillex and Diplo’s solo material, it feels pitch-perfect as Jack Ü, balancing out the dumb moments with brief flashes of pop genius.
This is most evident on the album’s two best tracks, which also feature two of the most unusual collaborations. AlunaGeorge’s debut album might have missed the mark spectacularly, but the combination of Aluna Francis’ yearning vocal, mushy sidechained chords and pneumatic drill bass on ‘To Ü’ nails the glossy trance-dubstep that Magnetic Man tried and failed to perfect back in 2010. Then there’s the jewel in the crown, the Justin Bieber-featuring ‘Where Are Ü Now’. Like much of Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü, it feels like two songs bolted together, a combination of slick, modern Disneyfied R&B and a synth riff that sounds like a PC Music take on Booka Shade’s ‘In White Rooms’. It feels so detached from reality that Missy Elliott’s appearance on the remix of ‘Take Ü There’ that follows is actually something of a climbdown.
Skrillex and Diplo present Jack Ü works for much the same reason the music of SOPHIE and PC Music does – as a subversion of something that’s otherwise quite safe. EDM is now so deeply ingrained in modern pop that what Diplo and Skrillex are doing here is actually radical in comparison – take last year’s Avicii-produced Coldplay track ‘The Sky Is Full Of Stars’, for example, a comparatively beige piece of easy listening that sounds more at home on the drivetime slot than a house party. It’s probably no coincidence that the Jack Ü album artwork sports a child-like, hand-drawn take on a smiley – listening to it feels like revisiting an embarrassing album from your misspent youth. For those willing to go with it, it’s actually a lot of fun.