Review Summary: M.I.A. delivers her most cohesive and passionate album yet.
Ever since she burst into the public consciousness with “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. has had to deal with her newfound stardom. She hasn’t exactly handled the media exposure well, what with her increasingly incoherent interviews, her Gaga-bashing, her Bieber-trashing, and her (admittedly inexcusable) tweeting Lynn Hirschberg’s cell phone number after Hirschberg wrote a none-too-flattering profile piece for the New York Times Magazine
. It seems as if all this media chatter has drowned out any discussion about Maya
, her eponymous third studio album. Which would be a pity, really, because no matter how interesting it may be to discuss M.I.A.'s perceived "contradictions" (as the Hirschberg piece did in great detail), the most compelling thing about Maya Arulpragasam is and always has been her art. Maya
epitomizes this - at once visceral, confounding, and beautiful, it is yet another terrific album to add to M.I.A.'s catalog. It isn’t an easy listen, even by M.I.A.’s standards – the production is clattery and woozy, with samples coming and going without warning. But it trumps Arular
in terms of flow – whereas those albums could sometimes feel like fractured compilation albums (remember that throwaway Timbaland track on Kala
is excellently sequenced. Listening to each song on its own isn’t nearly as satisfying as enjoying the whole album in one gloriously off-the-wall sitting.
“We’re growing up in the middle of the digital ruckus,” M.I.A. shouts on “Meds and Feds”, and who are we to argue with her? We live in a disconnected world. The Internet enables us to communicate with people all over the world while abstaining from actual human contact. Throughout Maya
, M.I.A. explores the implications of this increasing dependence on technology, although her take on the subject is about as subtle as that “Revenge of the YouTubes” album cover. Opening skit “The Message” sets the tone: “Head bone connects to the neck bone/neck bone connects to the arm bone/arm bone connects to the hand bone/hand bone connects to the Internet/connects it to the Google/connects it to the government.” It’s quintessential M.I.A. – naïve, silly, blunt, and incredibly catchy.
M.I.A.’s sounds have always been more interesting than her lyrics. It’s not so much that her rebel-chic swagger isn’t appealing, but rather that sonically she is capable of pulling off the most bizarre of fusions. This is exemplified in the dizzying “Tekqilla”, a six-minute-long ode to hedonism that mixes videogame blips, found sounds, and a gloriously off-kilter pulse. All of these disparate elements mixed together can feel overwhelming at first, but when that chorus comes in and M.I.A. goes, “I got sticky-sticky-icky-icky weed/like a shot of tequila in me,” you can’t help but get lost in the delirious hook. “Tekqilla” bleeds seamlessly into the stoner rap “Lovalot”, which is bound to gain attention for its chorus, where M.I.A. stretches the line “I really love a lot” to sound suspiciously like “I really love Allah”. It’s the sort of thing that her fans call revolutionary and her detractors call a cheap gimmick. The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. It is a deliberately provocative trick, for sure, but the fact that “I really love Allah” is provocative at all seems to be her point. She’s provoking us, but in the end, we’re the only ones who end up looking bad.
Elsewhere, M.I.A. waxes rhapsodic on fame and its side effects amidst jet engines and sirens in “Story To Be Told” and dabbles in clubby mainstream pop with “XXXO”. But the penultimate track on Maya
, “Tell Me Why”, is something else entirely. It’s a ballad, a gorgeous one, peppered with choral samples and a campfire beat (á la Animal Collective). There’s nothing like it in M.I.A.’s catalog, and Arulpragasam sounds better than she ever has before – her voice sounds organic, even with auto-tune noticeably applied. “How come people all like the same?” she asks, pleadingly, over and over again. A call to arms as well as an anthem for disconnection, “Tell Me Why” is easily the most affecting song M.I.A. has ever written. It encapsulates everything that makes M.I.A. a compelling artist – a splash of rebellion, a bit of kitsch, and a love for adventure. What makes Maya
so exciting, then, is not just that it is a fantastic album in its own right, but that it's evidence that M.I.A. isn’t running out of ideas anytime soon. If that's not exciting for the future, I don't know what is.