A funny thing happened on the way to hearing M.I.A.’s third album: We heard a lot about it. Sure, we heard a lot before her 2005 debut, Arular. A videography gig leading to a drum machine, MySpace phenomenon, and so forth. We also heard a fair amount before her follow-up, 2007’s Kala. Denied a visa, recorded around the world, and so forth. But the lead-up to her “eponymous” /\/\/\Y/\ (MAYA) included an exceptional amount of sound bites. An engagement to the son of a billionaire, a Grammy performance (and a baby for the encore), a banned video, questions of journalistic standards. Hell, half of the album received sanctioned “leaks,” not to mention complete album reviews weeks in advance.
In a sense, the sheer volume and type of press should not be surprising. M.I.A. is the sort of artist that has been branded with the ‘agit-prop revolutionary or cultural tourist in-it-for-the-money’ debate since day one, so her career thrives on such mania. However, /\/\/\Y/\ (MAYA) has experienced a peculiar pregnancy because these conversations clearly spelled out what the album would sound like. The album may have been one of the most anticipated records of 2010, but it was also one of the most telegraphed.
/\/\/\Y/\ (MAYA) promised to be big and divisive. M.I.A.’s life and career trajectory have been ambitious, and artistically she has required larger music to fit the larger platforms she now has access to. Simultaneously she always embraced controversial, in-your-face statements. Understandably her production credits (Rusko, Blaqstarr, Diplo, among others) read like an A-team of mouthpieces: experts at shaping and amplifying a sound. These are the type of people that M.I.A. needed to keep her music on message, so there was never any doubt she would turn to less-mainstream artists. Using name-brand producers would mean sharing marquee space. From concept to sound, the album had to present M.I.A. as a shock-and-awe experience.
/\/\/\Y/\ (MAYA) assaults listeners with this expected lack of subtlety. From the opening “The Message,” rampant paranoia (the rapid succession of conclusions, “Hand bone connects to the Internet/ Connects to the Google/ Connects to the government”) is established as one of the album’s key principles. At the same time a strict discipline organizes the track, particularly in the stiff, marching rhythms. In this way, the album constantly veers between anarchy and order. While some songs appear to have a cleaner polish (the pleasantly danceable “XXXO” and the epic “Tell Me Why”) than others (the freewheeling “Born Free” and the ultra-compressed “Space”), every song is structured like a concise pop song with just a few rough edges. The sub-crushing, buzzsaw-gnashing “Steppin’ Up” has its share of call-and-response parts (“M-I-A / You know who I am”) and ready-made vocal hooks (“Rub-a-dub-dub/ Rub-a-dub-a-dub-dub”). Similarly the spare “Lovalot” (which earned early press for its reference to the photograph of alleged 2010 Moscow suicide bomber Dzhanet Abdullayeva and her late husband) is perhaps more memorable for featuring the most singable line with a Chinese premier’s name, “Hu/ Jin/ Tao.”
Better still are the “un-leaked” tracks, like “Story To Be Told” and “Meds And Feds,” though they may sound fresher because they haven’t spent as much time in our collective listening channels. In truth, these two are much like the other tracks in how they are the sound of M.I.A. playing with genre tropes (again, “order”) by using them to make collages of ideas (…versus “chaos”). “Story To Be Told” essentially has a dubstep structure, but is punctuated by her signature sounds of industry: jets flying overhead, faux-chain saws being revved and rhythms shifted to resemble helicopter blades. “Meds And Feds” has the familiar trappings of a Sleigh Bells song — in-the-red drums and overdriven guitars — but the beat pounds with primal authority and Alexis Krauss’s aerobicise-worthy energy is traded in for M.I.A.’s cool, up-yours-bondage screwface. And sirens. The entire listening experience is both exhaustive in its aggression, but edited deliberately (the entire album clocks in at around 45 minutes) to avoid excess. What else could she have wanted?
If there is any problem with the album’s overall concept, it is that M.I.A. comes across as emotionally inaccessible. Perhaps such calculated conceptualism is necessary for a pop celebrity of a certain stature; in order to maintain her personal identity, she intentionally shields it behind a separate, public persona. I get it, protect ya neck, Maya. However, M.I.A.’s emotional range remains limited to anger and contrarian defensiveness. Her cover of Spectral Display’s early ’80s hit “It Takes A Muscle To Fall In Love” suggests other aspects to her musical personality — sentimental romantic, perhaps? Her cover is a relatively faithful one that only substitutes dub reggae touches for Yaz synth-pop instruments. However, the hook finds her shying away from committing to the message of the song fully. While M.I.A. sings the line (“It takes a muscle…”), her voice on the second half of the line (“to fall in love”) is distorted. She misses an opportunity to express another emotion, and instead turns the song into another symbol or an affect. Credit her for being consistent in her messaging, but years from now will we really remember facts or feelings?