M.I.A. is nearly impossible to review without heaps of research into her political views and life. It’s also impossible to not acknowledge the recent New York Times debacle in which journalist Lynn Hirschberg’s unfavorable profile caused M.I.A. to retaliate by posting the reporter’s phone number on Twitter. If there’s one thing that M.I.A. wants us to know, it’s that she doesn’t follow rules.
The same can be said for her music. While the dubstep influence is still apparent on many tracks on her new album, /\/\/\Y/\ (Maya), M.I.A. strays from her world and alternative hip hop genres of the past and adopts a more industrial, electronic and punk-influenced sound. Maya pushes M.I.A. further from the mainstream despite her major success with “Paper Planes,” but this move is not a bad thing. Once exalted by hipsters until she headed too close to the public eye, Maya takes M.I.A.’s sound and vision somewhere that neither side would expect.
While her past two records were named for her father (Arular) and mother (Kala), the new release is M.I.A.’s first name. Many of the tracks seem like she is justifying herself and her views, to some degree, while also acknowledging that she is proud to be successful.
Born in London, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam had a rough childhood, including a move to her family’s native Sri Lanka and her father becoming a political activist. The story is long, but it is easy to see where her political side began.
The album is also a rant against social media and Google, in the sense that our connectedness through the internet also means we are directly connected to the government (this is blatantly stated in the album’s opener, “The Message”).
The most experimental track seems to be “Steppin’ Up,” which opens with the sound of power tools put to a steady rhythm that could be a slow club jam if it weren’t for the surprise industrial vibe. It’s over this mesh of beats and found sounds that M.I.A. raps “You know who I am,” and “I run this fucking club.”
“Teqkilla” is also somewhat experimental. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly where she’s headed in the song musically, but the beat is catchy and the electronic, almost classic-Nintendo sound effects are a great addition. It does drag on a bit at over six minutes, but the track is nice to jam to mindlessly, as most of the album is filled with politics and social opinions.
The first official single, “XXXO,” which also has a remix featuring Jay-Z, is definitely the most radio-friendly, both musically and in content. There’s still an industrial-like sound, but there are also aspects of techno and pop. It’s also mostly a song about a troubled relationship in which M.I.A. sings, “You want me [to] be somebody who I’m really not.”
“Lovalot” may be the best song on the album, sonically. It has a slow, rolling beat and a steady rap with some interesting stops and starts to really draw attention to the lyrics. She starts out by saying, “They told me this was a free country. Now it feels like a chicken factory.” She also proclaims that she “really love[s] a lot,” but she’ll still fight back. Of course with references to the Taliban and bombings, it keeps to the underlying theme of M.I.A.’s career.
Perhaps Lynn Hirschberg was right to say that M.I.A. speaks like a “trained politician,” as many songs feature her echoing vocals preaching as if she was a world leader addressing her nation. The first track released, “Born Free,” samples classic punk rockers Suicide and features M.I.A.’s booming, reveb-laced voice over powerful electric guitars and a fast cymbal rhythm proclaiming that she was “born free.”
The video is also a statement on racial cleansing in the sense that it can happen anywhere–even, apparently, in a white country that decides to get rid of all the redheads. Meanwhile, “Meds and Feds” is a stomping rock track with hard guitars and the repeated line “I just give a damn.” M.I.A. knows where she stands and wants us to know it, too.
Many reviewers and bloggers find M.I.A. hard to digest. It’s easy to simply analyze the music or to dismiss her as “old news,” but the fact is that she may be one of the most influential artists in the past few years, even working with artists like Christina Aguilera. Still, it seems she really couldn’t care less what critics think, because after all, as she says on the album, “All I ever wanted was my story to be told.”
M.IA. may not be part of the hipster underground, but Maya is far from a sellout album. In a world of pop music laced with product placement, copying styles and over-the-top images, it’s refreshing to hear an artist truly paving her own way, no matter what society says.
It’s also nice to have an album that could be taken at face value or analyzed much deeper in terms of political statements-a task that takes more than one small article. Maya hits stores on July 13 on her own label, N.E.E.T. Recordings, but a few tracks are already up on iTunes. She also headlines Hard NYC on July 24 on Governor’s Island.