Anyone who releases a promotional short film for a song off her new album depicting a young ginger kid getting shot in the head at point blank range deserves what’s coming to her, scathing New York Times articles and all. But M.I.A. is a different breed of pop star: she knows she’ll get attention for her outlandish actions and have microphones shoved in her face asking her to explain herself, which she’ll use to express her larger political views to a wide audience that she knows will listen.
It’s always been this way, of course. After hitting big with Kala in 2007, M.I.A. used her concerts – now being attended by thousands – to big up Sri Lanka’s still-raging civil war and wage attacks on the media, along with whatever else she had her sights on at the time. She named her first album, Arular, after her father, a member of the militant Tamil Tigers. And don’t even get her started on the various conspiracy theories she claims have plagued her, from being denied entry into the United States in 2007 to record with Timbaland, to her house being apparently bugged with CIA microphones.
Had M.I.A. simply been a standard electronic artist with no real inspiration, her tirades would have made her sound like a cliché at best, and a loathsome spotlight hogger at worst (never mind the fact that’s already starting to happen). But her globe-trotting field recordings with producer Switch made Kala a brilliant musical statement that took the world music syntheses of David Byrne and Paul Simon into the future and beyond. It helped her larger cause, and she came across as a truly educated international traveler who knew what she was talking about…almost a first for today’s pop market.
Now, of course, she’s making waves in her media life again, and despite any wish to not do so, we must judge her newest record on whether it can, once again, back up her always-flapping mouth…which is why, at first, Maya sounds like a complete and utter failure as an artistic statement. There’s no longer a sense that M.I.A. is keeping one eye on herself and another on the rest of the world. The record sounds insular, self-purposing, the result of a studio obsessive unable or unwilling to open any windows and let some light shine in, so she can see what’s outside. It’s all contained within her scattered mind, as songs jump from style to style, mood to mood, at an almost dizzying speed.
But then, amazingly, details emerge, and by the second and third listens, it all starts to come together. M.I.A. has never had a particular “sound” by which to categorize her; it’s all down to the attitude of each song. And when you realize that, it becomes clear that she has done something special here, as it comes across more personal and even – gasp – friendlier.
She has regressed somewhat in comparison to Kala, but that’s to be expected; that record was so “out there” in its style and execution that there was no possible way to continue down that same road without being labelled repetitive. So she’s back to the clattering electronica of Arular, yet she still finds ways to expand and build on it in a way that sounds like both a throwback and a leap forward in a new direction at the same time.
Outside of the infamous video, “Born Free” actually makes sense, and is a rollicking, even fun track that takes a dangerous Suicide sample, mixes it with frantic four-on-the-floor drumming, and morphs into a vehicle for M.I.A. to whoop and holler with a rarely-seen lack of vocal restraint. And while no other song on Maya matches this fuzz-fest’s primal punk fury, it fits rather perfectly in context of the record.
Same for “XXXO,” an atypically bright disco number where M.I.A. actually – wait for it – flirts with us, suggesting “I can be the actress/You be Tarantino”…whatever that means. It’s destined for radio, it contains the highest notes M.I.A. has sung as a chorus hook, and yet it still sounds like M.I.A.
Speaking of singing, there’s a lot of it here, although M.I.A. still does her funky mumble-rap thing throughout and it’s still, somehow, not getting as tired as some may attest. But M.I.A. actually succeeds as a singer on the few songs here that call for it, cooing dreamily on closing track “Space” and crossing 808s and Heartbreak with her own twisted take on electro for “Tell Me Why.”
Anyone who explores so much musical ground over two 40-minute albums is bound to receive enormous expectations and scrutiny, and M.I.A. is certainly no stranger to that, whether it is over her public life, her private life, or her music. Although Mayawon’t grab you and shake you with as much vigorous and passionate force as her first two records, it’s a fine and worthwhile third attempt by an artist who’s never willing to settle down into a comfortable groove, nor will she bow to public pressures to be someone she’s not. This record – nay, her entire life – should be subtitled, “Deal With It.”
Originally published July 2010