Tres provocateur! Nobody’s ever accused M.I.A. of being subtle. If you honestly believe she ever has been, well, you really don’t know Maya Arulpragasam. Her first two albums “Arular” and “Kala” both proved that she most definitely doesn’t shy away from topics she feels are important, primarily when it comes to war and famine and genocide. Compared to other artists at the forefront of the hip hop, R&B and the laundry list of other genres that somehow fit into her complex music, M.I.A. doesn’t buy into the whole “money, guns and hos” standards of everyone else. It’s one of the big reasons why she’s risen above the fray to gain respect among music bloggers and critics across the globe. The mainstream success of the song “Paper Planes”, with its strategic placement in movies such as “Pineapple Express” and “Slumdog Millionaire”, has now catapulted M.I.A. to a whole new level of popularity. And despite the weight of expectation and record label investments on her shoulders, M.I.A. hasn’t backed away from anything or anyone. When the New York Times ran a piece on her in preparation for her new album, they weren’t exactly kind to Maya. In addition to misquoting her and saying she has some sort of vendetta against Bono, there were also words suggesting that today’s M.I.A. is a rich, upper class woman who only uses the poor and war-torn people as props in her songs. As it did seem to reflect poorly on her, M.I.A. took to writing angry missives against the article and even provided enough evidence to cause the NYT to issue a small retraction on a portion of what was written. Call it just another day in the life of Maya Arulpragasam. Well, her third record, painstakingly titled “/\/\/\Y/\” (henceforth to be referred to as “MAYA” for obvious reasons), is out next week, and no matter how controversial her personal life may get, many are waiting with nervous energy to hear if M.I.A. can keep her streak of brilliant and progressive records alive.
If you’re not living steadfastly in the digital age only, you may have taken notice of the cover art for “MAYA”. It features an apparent cut-and-paste job of a number of YouTube timeline bars, with M.I.A.’s face buried behind them, her eyes being the only thing clearly visible. Below that fray is M.I.A. written in stacked gold bars and surrounded on both sides by brick walls that are falling apart. The reason the cover is worth paying attention to is because it says so very much about what this album has in terms of content. Unlike her first two records, which were made under severe financial constraints, M.I.A. now has plenty of money and producers begging to work with her after “Paper Planes” came off huge. Whether or not this success has changed her is up for debate. What “MAYA” is, to many degrees, is a record about technology and how our world is affected by it. This theme is apparent right from the get-go, when on the opening track “The Message”, she claims that Google is being used by the government to spy on people. There’s paranoia like that surrounding technology all over the album, and while much of it can seem crackpot and flat-out wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating or good. Additionally, to back all this up, much of the record is comprised of electronic samples, strung together by her various producers (Diplo, Switch, Rusko, Blaqstarr). Compared to the world music and tribal elements which so dominated her first couple albums, this evokes a sharper contrast with the very technology M.I.A. is railing against being the same things used to help make her songs. This metaphor extends even beyond the context of this album, and between her controversial personal life, also shows how M.I.A. herself is a contradiction in so many ways. It’s also in this same way that you get tracks on typical M.I.A. subject matter such as terrorism and genocide in Third World countries while later on you’ll hear her go on about her iPhone or the amount of money she has in the bank. All of these things are quintessential Maya Arulpragasam, while at the same time they are not. And looking back to that technology-stricken cover, not only is there a computer cut-and-paste mess everywhere along with the bars of gold, but simply examining the way her face is framed with only her eyes peering out at you both suggests she’s hiding behind these elements while at the same time making a reference to the Muslim world in which a face-covering Burka is traditional garb for women. Whether or not any of these ideas splayed out on the cover are actually intended to function as such is a topic for debate. After all, it could be just some slapdash attempt to look cool – though that’s never really been M.I.A.’s style.
Specifically speaking for the songs and how they sound overall, things are darker and heavier on “MAYA” than they’ve ever been before. After the fuzzed out and dark minute-long intro of “The Message”, the first noises you hear on the track “Steppin’ Up” are that of chainsaws and power drills mixed with some heavy bass drum beats. It’s the start of what will eventually be an industrial-heavy record with occasional splashes of pop in between. Compared to the world music and African-based sounds of her previous two albums, this is a big change. While that could be viewed as a positive thing that prevents M.I.A. from continuing to play off a unique sound that might have started to get a little stale, plenty of others might not see it that way. Combine these hard-hitting new sounds with a number of songs that use beats you’d hear in your average hip hop record today and suddenly it’s easy M.I.A.’s originality into question. Of course she’s not the one crafting these beats, her producers are and she’s just writing lyrics off of them. But a track like “XXXO” functions as a perfectly marketable pop song, complete with Jay-Z on the remix, because it’s got a hook that’s easy on the ears. That’s not something you would have expected on a record like “Kala” or “Arular”, so given that slice of disingenuous pie you have to wonder what else doesn’t work as expected. Perhaps the biggest risk that M.I.A. takes on “MAYA” is with the song “Lovalot”, which is by most accounts a terrorism love song. To be clearer, the song isn’t about a love of terrorism, but rather about two terrorists that fall in love. This sort of controversial topic is nothing new for M.I.A., but between the unique sound the song brings forward combined with her vocal stretching of the oft-repeated phrase “I really love a lot” so that it sounds closer to “I really love Allah”, it’s understandable why it’s getting so much attention. The good news is that despite the extreme challenges that track presents, it’s also probably the best song she’s done since “Paper Planes”. Elsewhere towards the end of the album you get a few rip-roaring guitar cuts in the form of “Born Free” and “Meds and Feds”. Suicide’s song “Ghost Rider” is sampled on “Born Free” and originally debuted as a very controversial music video you can watch online should you know where to look. Many are saying the song loses quite a bit when the context of the video has been taken away from it, but if you haven’t seen or refuse to watch said video, you should like it just fine. As far as “Meds and Feds” goes, it samples a guitar riff from the Sleigh Bells song “Treats”, and much like that track, this one’s also a delight. It’s fascinating to hear M.I.A. get so dark and gritty in these instances, and not only is it something she’s never done before but it’s something that few hip-hop related acts have the balls to even consider attempting. That she pulls it off quite well is testament to her strengths as an artist. “MAYA” ends on the anti-gravity relaxant of “Space”, which sounds just like the area outside of our planet’s atmosphere. Freed from all the noise and prying eyes of today’s technology, M.I.A. gets a moment to finally relax and take some personal time. It’s as if she’s cut loose the tethers we’ve all become attached to and has returned to a simpler time when all of life’s burdens weren’t thrust upon us by our own nature. For a record that so rabidly attacks the digital age, “Space” functions as the calm after the storm.
There’s a strong reason to believe that “MAYA” will sharply divide M.I.A. fans, that is if her dischordant personality hasn’t already. Her music has always been challenging, and though in some aspects this new album relies on old hip hop and pop stereotypes at times, this could be her most difficult record to date. From a purely compositional perspective, there’s plenty to like about it, and it’s definitely easier on the ears than much of the obscurist world music fare that was pushed forwards on those first two albums. Lyrically, the frequent criticisms of technology may very well provoke anger among the many technophiles that are certainly fans of hers, but that anger can probably be taken with a grain of salt. After all, M.I.A. is all about her Twitter account, and she almost assuredly owns an iPhone, so to say that she’s technology-averse because her lyrics say so is just another one of those big contradictions that defines Maya Arulpragasam. She’s a woman of many layers, and “MAYA” is able to present another bit of that to those who will listen. There’s not exactly another crossover hit like “Paper Planes” on the album, but in the darker, more industrial-based corners there’s still plenty compelling about it. You’d be wise to sample it and make your own determinations as to if it’s worth your time.
M.I.A. – Tequkilla (Lost my fone out wiv Nicki Minaj Remix) (ZIP)
M.I.A. – Haters