Review Summary: M.I.A.'s coming back with power power.
M.I.A.'s fourth full-length arrives nearly a year late in the wake of numerous disputes between the Sri-Lankan artist and Universal. The problem with the forthcoming endeavor seemed easy to decipher as yet another attempt at making the music as commercially viable as possible. After all, Maya Arulpragasam's previous offering was an uncompromising take on the Internet era that baffled many listeners with its abrasive mesh-up of various styles and overall disdain for melody. To everyone's astonishment, though, the main gripe the record company reportedly had with the new M.I.A. output was that it sounded “too positive.” As understandable as Universal's intentions to cash on Arulpragasam as a rebelious, anti-establishment pop icon may be, these circumstances clearly reflect an insatiable desire of large record labels to tarnish any sense of artistic ingenuity and progress. Thankfully, the singer hasn't yielded to Universal's demands, releasing the album that's artistically credible rather than calculated.
Despite the delay, Matangi
certainly doesn't sound dated as it relies on contributions from producers in the upper echelon of current pop charts. Most notably, her long-time partner-in-crime Switch is responsible for the disc's most ferocious cuts, while Doc McKinney of the Weeknd smooths over the presentation in its final stretch. Whether M.I.A. collaborates with R&B producer Danja or the hip hop-affiliated Hit-Boy, her signature brand of Hindu-tinged electronica unmistakably shines through. Much like her previous outings Matangi
revolves around an off-kilter sonic palette. The album's impressive stew of noises involves trumpeting electronics, hazy synths, jangling rhythms, frenzied bursts of sub-bass and discordant Bollywood samples.
The singer's voice also gets a special treatment, being subjected to the cutting-edge rhythmic manipulation on 'Bring The Noize' which works equally well as a pounding party banger and a subversive mission statement. The militant drum fills propel the fractured onslaught of 'Warriors,' whereas 'Come Walk With Me' deceptively kicks off with a bubblegum pop melody only to burst into a barrage of atonal beats. 'aTENTion' curiously sees Arulpragasam reciting the multitude of words that rhyme with “tent” to the 90s garage inspired arrangement and a series of playful samples to bracing effect. 'Bad Girls' is much more potent thematically with its middle finger pointed at the Saudi Arabian laws that don't allow women wearing a niqab to drive. It's a daring anthem of female empowerment that stands out from the pack owing to its infectious hook and sinister atmosphere. Elsewhere, 'Y.A.L.A,' whose title stands for “you always live again,” is a cheeky repartee to the favored T-shirt acronym. “Y.O.L.O…what that even mean though? / back home where I come from we keep being born again…,” M.I.A. proclaims in the track's finale.
Amid all its bombast and abrasiveness, Matangi
ventures into more subdued songcraft that's not only demonstrated in a less hectic sound, but also in a more varied approach to vocals. Instead of defiantly rapping, M.I.A. confidently sings on many occasions, revealing her vulnerable incarnation to a greater extent than ever before. She lends the smooth vocals to the dub swing of 'Double Bubble Trouble' and the coy falsetto to the wonderfully stripped-down 'Lights.' The most affecting moment, however, comes with the hook-laden R&B of 'Know It Ain't Right.' These mellowed-out numbers enrich the listening experience, creating a sense of intimacy that's been largely absent from the artist's previous output. At points her lyrics may be devoid of substance, but the superlative production keeps the songs engrossing. The sole exception is closer 'Sexodus' that fails to distinguish itself from the mystical 'Exodus.'
While many pop singers settle on the lowest common denominator, M.I.A. stays ahead of the curve. Her career-defining achievement Kala
remains unmatched, yet the new album is nearly as appealing with its balanced collection of club-ready jams that dare to be distinctive in the realm of current pop music. At once highly inventive and unabashedly fun, Matangi
showcases the trailblazing pop star at her most expansive thus far. M.I.A. adroitly capitalizes on her established style, embellishing it with moments of genuine intimacy. On 'Boom Skit' she implies she was accused of "stealing Madonna's crown" after her notorious Superbowl performance. I for one have nothing against it.