Review Summary: Maya confirms the sneaking suspicion that this pop-empress wears no clothes.
I have good news and bad news for M.I.A. fans. The good news: 2010 has seen the release of a pretty terrific M.I.A. album. The bad news: that album is by Sleigh Bells, and it's called Treats.
Maya Arulpragasam has always been frustrating, by intention. A pop artist who wears political opinions like a penciled-in beauty mark or a weird asymmetrical hairdo, M.I.A. fancies herself a provocateur, when all we really want from her is compelling dance music. With every release, her efforts have resulted in increasingly diminished returns. Arular, her first and best album, was threatened by two interrelated flaws, her penchant for cacophony and an over-reliance on repetition. The material on Arular was so good that its flaws were elevated into the realm of novelty, and it ended up being better for them. These flaws were more pronounced on her great (yet wildly overpraised) follow-up, Kala, which contained some clunkers ("Hussel" and "Mango Pickle Down River") alongside some jaw-droppers ("Bamboo Banger," "Paper Planes," and "Boyz"). On Maya, M.I.A. has consolidated and emphasized her worst tendencies, while only intermittently offering the listener the smallest consolation of a good hook.
Lynn Hirschberg's much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile of M.I.A., unquestionably a hatchet job, still seemed to confirm the once-sneaking suspicion that Arulpragasam is intellectually vapid and artistically pretentious. Maya accomplishes the same result without Hirschberg's assistance. From the unnecessary typographical presentation of its title (///Y/), to the insipid and instantly dated references to internet culture (the iPhone, Google, and Twitter are all name-checked), Maya betrays the hopeless labor of an artist trying to construct something relevant and profound atop a foundation of sand.
Despite its self-reflexive title, Maya isn't a personal work, nor is it M.I.A.'s version of Dylan's Self Portrait, her deliberate attempt to shed fans. Instead, it sounds as if M.I.A., so emboldened by her status as critical darling, assumed any tossed-off dreck would seem better by virtue of being her dreck. Or perhaps she's just run out of ideas. Either way, there's no excuse for the six-and-a-half-minute-too-long "Teqkilla," an aimless mess that hides beneath the belches of electronic tones and a too-familiar beat. "Lovalot," which opens with the insightful lyric, "They told me this was a free country, but now it feels like a chicken factory," only gets worse from there. On "Stepping Up," M.I.A. insists "you know who I am" over the braying of power tools. Yes, Maya, we know who you are. Only this song makes us want to forget.
There are moments where Maya hints at something great, before veering off course. "Born Free" begins with the thrill of an accelerating snare beat that launches into a sample of Suicide's "Ghost Rider." All is well, until M.I.A.'s inert and overly echoed vocal enters the mix, making it the second best song named "Born Free." Its accompanying (nine minute long!) music video is, incredibly, even more obnoxious. "Meds and Feds" features a signature guitar hook by Derek Miller (of the aforementioned Sleigh Bells) as its best element, but lacks the salve of Alexis Krauss' lovely voice. Where Krause tempers Miller's aggressive riffing, M.I.A. turns the song into the aural equivalent of a root canal, without the merciful respite of Novocaine.
Maya contains one unqualified success. "XXXO," a frothy and thumping Eurodance gem, is irresistible, with a chorus that demands the confines of a dark and sweaty dance floor. By being blatantly accessible, "XXXO" ends up being the lone left-field track on an album so desperate to incite. If M.I.A really wanted to be provocative, Maya would have contained twelve tracks like "XXXO." In other words, it would have been a Robyn album.
The cover art to Maya encapsulates what's so wrong with the album itself: a shambles of uninteresting and disparate elements that not only fail to jell, but end up obscuring an artist we've come to admire. Maya is both overwrought and half-baked, at once busy and boring.