The record's most dominant concepts seem excavated from burned-out pop tropes of the 2010s.

By Maura Johnston
May 28, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Emma Marie Jenkinson

Since his days as a Philadelphia DJ, Diplo — born Thomas Wesley Pentz — has been a master of distilling genres like Miami bass, baile funk, and dancehall into instantly grabbable songs that could captivate sweaty club kids and casual fans alike. On his second proper studio album, Diplo looks closer to home, claiming to take on country music with Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley Chapter 1: Snake Oil.

It's a savvy move by Diplo, who debuted his Thomas Wesley persona at 2019's Stagecoach Festival. In the past few years, shape-shifting duo Florida Georgia Line scored its second top-five crossover hit with the swaying Bebe Rexha collab "Meant to Be"; up-and-comers like Maren Morris and Kane Brown have lent their voices to big-tent electro-pop; and singers like the captivating Cam have forged their own path with nervy, smoldering tracks that are rooted in Dolly and the dance floor.

Cam winds up having the best moment on Snake Oil with "So Long," which places her quivering question-mark voice above a slightly Southern-fried redo of Clean Bandit's string-forward 2014 hit "Rather Be." The track is certainly the most fleshed-out of all the new material, and Cam's up-close vocal makes its gently pleading lyrics hit hard. It's surrounded by a bunch of slight sketches, though, a brevity that feels not based in concision as it does a lack of ideas.

The most dominant concepts, in fact, seem excavated from burned-out pop tropes of the 2010s. "Dance With Me," which pairs swaggering Nashville scion Thomas Rhett with surrealistic MC Young Thug, has the sort of lite-reggae beat that dominated pop radio during the mid-2010s, with any vocal idiosyncrasies ironed out in service of the wordless hook. "Heartless" (which appears here as a Morgan Wallen solo as well as a duet with him and uber-songwriter Julia Michaels) layers a bit of twang amidst its trap snares and weepy slide guitar. "Do Si Do" wastes the charming Blanco Brown on a growled, minimalistic update of Trace Adkins' 2005 ode to posteriors "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a studio in-joke that should have stayed in drafts.

Snake Oil closes out with Diplo's remix of Lil Nas X's 2019 hit "Old Town Road," which comes from a similarly polyglot place as much of Diplo's best music, blending country vibes, hip-hop swagger, and a riff borrowed from Trent Reznor. Diplo's canny rework adds breakbeats and rhythms nicked from 2-step garage to Lil Nas X's moseying, giving it a different kind of dance-floor life. Unfortunately, its inclusion shines a harsh light on what Snake Oil is largely missing — namely, the sense of fun and camaraderie that made "Old Town Road," and even country's most tear-in-the-beer tracks, so endlessly listenable. Diplo's second album might be a cheeky bid to stake out a spot in Nashville, but the end result is largely a bummer, a collection of dourly self-conscious "chill" accessorized with the kind of cheap cowboy hat that gets left behind on the way to the festival parking lot.

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