Renowned troublemaker M.I.A. (née Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) just can't help making a scene. More often than not, she can be found spouting off about terrorism, genocide, and the evils of the Almighty Google. Controversy seems to follow her (or does she follow it?). The most recent scandal involved a New York Times profile piece that eviscerated her, to put it mildly, for being a hypocrite (she was caught talking about poverty and death in her native Sri Lanka while eating a truffle french fry in Beverly Hills). And there was more drama when YouTube banned her "Born Free" music video due to its in-your-face explicit nature (obese people bump uglies and gingers are rounded up and murdered). Love her or hate her, M.I.A.'s name seems to be on everyone's lips.
M.I.A. came to prominence in the mid aughts and turned heads with her provocative political rhymes, backed by (her then boyfriend) Diplo's dubstep beats. Being a musician was never her intention, though. Not a particularly good singer nor a professional beat-maker, Maya was insecure about her abilities, but started experimenting with nothing more than a 4-track tape machine, a synthesizer, and a radio microphone. What resulted was an explosion of DIY music that pulled genres from all over the globe and stitched the parts together into a brand new beast. Jungle, world music, hip-hop, electroclash, dancehall, classic pop: it was all there in her first big hit "Galang," as well as on her subsequent debut album Arular. Word of mouth from music blogs and internet forums spread and M.I.A. became the new It girl on the music scene. Soon thereafter, she had an Oscar nomination under her belt for her work on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack and a bona fide hit on her hands with "Paper Planes," a song featured prominently in stoner flick Pineapple Express of all movies.
She's come a long way from the Sri Lankan village, where civil war disrupted her early years (her school was destroyed in a government raid) and her family was forced to seek asylum in India and then London. Now, she's married to the son of Warner Music Group's CEO and lives comfortably in Brentwood, California. It's been hard for some people to reconcile her subversive revolutionary ideology with her new privileged lifestyle, and a mild backlash has begun. Where she goes from here depends on the reception to her new album, ///Y/ (MAYA spelled in the most annoying and unGoogleable way possible). Will it shut the haters up once and for all or just add fuel to their fire?
The album starts with the sound of typing that quickly gives way to a bass-heavy reinterpretation of the classic kids' sing-a-long "Head Bone is Connected to the Neck Bone." Instead of a lesson in anatomy, M.I.A. indulges in paranoia and conspiracy theory: "Headbone connects to the headphones/ Headphones connect to the iPhone/ iPhone connected to the internet/ Connected to the Google/ Connected to the government." In a recent interview, M.I.A. supported her "Google is evil" claims by explaining that, when looking up Sri Lanka, one will find result after result about vacationing there, yet no mention of the country's bloody reality until page 50-something. Things that make you go hmm.
Next up is "Steppin Up," which takes us onto a grimy construction site in a war zone. Layered power tools drill as M.I.A. sings nonsensically ("Rubba dub dub dub/ Aladdin no kiddin', boy, I need a rub") over explosions and a menacing bass line. The cacophony of discordant sounds found on her previous albums is cloned here and then given a large dose of steroids to boot. It's clear that M.I.A. intends to do what this track's title suggests: step up her game.
First single "XXXO" is a surprising pop nugget that sounds more like Rihanna than M.I.A. The song has all the requirements of a radio hit: a catchy hook ("You want me to be somebody who I'm really not") coupled with a fun sense of humor ("You tweetin' me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone" and "I can be the actress, you be Tarantino"). Sweet and light like cotton candy. It isn't long before "Teqkilla" stomps all over that pink confection with muddy boots; the song is a mishmash of sirens, bells, claps, and looped baby voices and foreign languages. It's like teleporting from one place to another in quick succession: a nursery to a goth club to the inside of a modem to an Indian religious ceremony. In a word: insane.
But the real stunner on this album is "Lovalot." An electrifying, schizophrenic jam about a young terrorist couple. "I really lovalot, I really lovalot," she repeats on the sensational chorus, twisting the last syllable in a way that will have many inadvertently singing "I really love Allah, I really love Allah!" (Oh, no she didn't!) Some might find this cheap or in poor taste, but there's something about the way this song slips Muslim sympathies into a post-911 Islamophobic culture that's pretty interesting, not to mention rad.
Like the album's slash-happy title, some songs can be downright grating, or worse, boring. Songs like "It Iz What It Iz" are limp at best, the production not interesting enough to lift the thin vocals from the garbage bin. "Meds and Feds," a collaboration with Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells, could have been a wow moment, but also flounders. The only interesting thing about it happens to be a certain buzz-saw riff that isn't even original, having been ripped directly from a much better Sleigh Bells track. Even the Diplo collaboration manages to disappoint. "Tell Me Why" features M.I.A. really singing, not just rapping, and what we get is a flawed, sluggish pop song that sounds like nothing more than a demo for some other pop artist.
Ear candy, ///Y/ is not, but its redeeming moments ultimately outweigh the disappointments. As much as I love the sounds of Arular and Kala, M.I.A. has already invaded that territory and needed to gain new ground. The shift to a more industrial sound is just her latest conquest and she's bound to wage war on a new and riskier target on her next release. Get to the bomb shelter; M.I.A. is coming for your eardrums!