Review Summary: Take it as it comes.
To talk about MAYA is to talk about MIA. There’s just no escaping it. Though all the pre-release buzz that circulated around MIA the person – her messy spat with the New York Times, her oh-so-confrontational music video for ‘Born Free’ – lay the specter of MAYA the album. And it hasn’t always been the happiest of specters. At any rate, the problem for MIA has simply been that in-between stealing the limelight (say, performing on the edge of giving birth at the 2009 Grammy awards) and playing the role of agent provocateur
(say, shooting small red haired children in the head), this is not just ‘another statement’ in a long line of statements – rather, this is the
statement, the one that makes all the others actually worth listening to. At stake, in other words, is the only stake that has ever really mattered: her relevance. MIA is MAYA. MAYA is MIA. This record isn’t just aptly titled, it’s the Truth, capital T and all. Without this
, MIA becomes another footnote in the books, an all talking, all ranting, washed up loser.
But back to the problem: forty-five minutes, one big statement, what to do? MIAs answer is an unconventional one, and it goes something like this: ‘I’m like a black genie and I blow up on this song, rub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub, rub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub’. Or, ‘I got sticky-ickky-ikky-weeee, I got-a shot-a tequila in me’. Or, ‘Sha-ka-la-ka-la, Sha-ka-la-ka-lee, Sha-ka-la-ka-la-ka-la-ka-lee’. Or thereabouts. At first glance, it’s the sort of lyrical triviality that flourishes in a contemporary music scene where ‘Umbrealla-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh’ marks the height of emotional evocation. But to think like this is to misread MIA. As she informs us: ‘You know who I am and I run this fu
cking club’ (lub-a-lub-a-lub-a-lub). Point is, she actually
does. And power like this? Well, it oozes, and MAYA is toxic with it. There’s enough swagger and attitude here that MIA could sing just about anything and make it cooler-than-f
uck. Again, MIA doesn’t just own
this record, she is
this record. It’s almost possible to hear her laughter under it all: “watch them eat this s
hit up”. Difference is that this time round, it tastes downright amazing.
Which is the thing to remember about MIA: on the one hand, she’s the supreme ironist of the scene she was born into, laughing at its best and worst excesses, while on the other, she’s thoroughly embedded in it, a pop and indie culture queen with a touch so sensitive that she’s still living up to Nas’ pronouncement a few years earlier that she is ‘the sound of the future’. There’s a sense that she doesn’t always straddle between the two with perfect control, but not even MIA is immune to her own frenzied machine. Nevertheless, this position is exactly why instead of crafting carefully laid out lyrical narratives, she leaps haphazardly across the cultural terrain with a sort of reckless abandon, dropping heavily weighted anchors of zeitgeisty goodness to mark herself out as effervescently hip: After informing us of the government plot in which our ipods are connected to the government (via Google), she runs through the litany of cool: Tarantino, Bob Marley, Ghandi, Smirnoff, Obama – little things, senseless things; meaningless, but loaded with effect. It’s no accident for example, that the second time she asks ‘who’s in town?’ on ‘Lovealot’, it sounds barely, imperceptibly like ‘Hu Jin Tao’ (look him up). The last person to so effectively string together cultural throwaways so readily was John Ashbery, and if he
was hailed as the prince of poets for a generation, there’s a feel for a warm shadow of that royalty that presides here too.
But the namedropping doesn’t stop here, and lyrics aside, they’re weaved into the tapestry of music here just as tightly, with the production decks manned by the likes of Diplo, Switch, Rusko and Blaqstarr, all of whom provide nothing short of an aural all-you-can-eat buffet. While their ever recognizable paws leave their marks all across the record, the end result is nevertheless undeniably MIA: even though most of the traces of ‘world music’ that were found on Kala and Arular have been extinguished, the music instead follows the schizophrenic and paranoiac vein of the lyrical content, with the squelch and wail of synthesizers dancing through a dark foliage of heavy beats and perfectly worked in samples. To give an insight, ‘Steppin Up’ roars with the sound of power drills over MIAs half-spat, half-sung delivery (the college academic in me likes to think it’s a commentary on the manufacturing of pop idols), ‘Born Free’ finds her reverb laden voice shooting through the stripped down proto-punk of Suicide’s instantly recognizable ‘Ghost Rider’ bassline, while ‘Meds and Feds’ is an all guns blazing guitar romp though an infusion of the ever loud and ever cool Sleigh Bells. The idea behind all of this is simple: throw it all at the wall, hit the big targets, and let the listener fill in the blanks. It’s a trick that lets MIA paint a way bigger picture than she probably otherwise would, and it works a brilliant charm.
And when it comes down to it, this album is, yes, a mess. It’s chaotic, it’s noisy, it’s abrasive, and it’s everything MIA has ever stood for (take a good, long look at that artwork). Even the slower songs, like the reggae-pop of ‘It Takes A Muscle’ and stratospheric headf
uck of ‘Space’ exist precisely to accentuate the madness, not calm it. Which is why so many people missed the point with ‘Born Free’s music video: while the blog collective played pin the tail on the interpretation, lost in the fog was the obvious answer that it was a video about giving a fuck
. About what? About anything
. What does ‘XXXO’ really
mean?: Enjoy. When a song is this catchy that it makes Lady Gaga look like just another pop star, just damn well enjoy it. And actually, let’s make that contrast: Both MIA and Gaga are at the respective top of their games because they’ve reversed everything about the way ‘things are done’. Gaga, the ultimate pop artist, doesn’t actually exist
outside of her music, while MIA, the ultimate blog artist, disappears inside
her music (try finding a concrete political point on any of the songs on MAYA – they don’t exist). The point is that MAYA has to be taken as it comes, culture jam and all, and it’s precisely at this point that it works out to be one of the most refreshing albums to hit the shelves in a long, long time.