If you’ve followed new music on the internet for the past few years, you couldn’t have escaped the polarising cultural phenomenon that is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A.
When she burst onto the pop scene with 2005’s Arular, many were baffled by the heated discussions and endless chatter about what sounded like just another pop album, albeit with a quirky, eccentric turn of phrase that appealed to the hipsters’s ironic zeitgeist. But look beyond the physical dance music and the disjointed catchphrases, and you encounter a music geek’s wet dream—a dense and heady blend of musical influences and exotic sounds that defies categorisation. Add in the political angst and self-assured swagger, and you have an artist that not even the most jaded observers of the music scene could ignore.
CD inlay artwork for ‘Lovalot’; courtesy of EMI Music.
One of the biggest problems with reviewing a M.I.A record is that her antagonistic public persona of an agent provocateur makes it all too easy to ignore the music and talk about whirlwind of hype, buzz, and controversy that surrounds her. Her new record /|/|/|Y/| comes at a time when she’s involved in an ugly spat with the media and her credibility is in doubt. Add in the fact that the music is dense, confusing, and so out of left field even for her, that it’s tempting to pan this record as an artist drunk on her own hype who has overreached her talent. The exotic world music vibe has been abandoned—gone are the Bollywood samples and catchy ironic-cool sing-alongs. M.I.A. sets out to prove that motherhood and fame haven’t softened her and she does it by putting together a record so messy, noisy, and abrasive, that at first listen, your mind has no choice but to reject it as sensory overload.
As you listen to it though, you start to appreciate the reckless abandon, as she lurches across the cultural landscape, namedropping the indie scene’s coolest icons. The music is heavily industrial, all buzzing guitars, power drill synths, and dark, heavy beats. The lyrics are the usual collection of nonsensical and sound byte laden rhymes, but delivered with such venom and swagger that when she says “You know who I am and I run this fucking club”, you better believe that she not only owns the club, she owns your ass as well. M.I.A. is an artist on a power trip, but in this case that’s a good thing. With her self-confidence, she could make the Union Budget sound cool-as-fuck. With this record, she does what she’s always threatened to do: Declare war on popular music. And as any historian will tell you, there’s no such thing as a clean or organised insurgency.
CD artwork for /|/|/|Y/|.
‘Steppin Up’ is full of the bravado typical of a gangsta rapper, but the vocals are buried under music that sounds like Al Jourgensen’s dubstep side project. If aural rape could ever sound good, this is it. The next track ‘XXXO’ is another nod to the grime/dubstep scene. M.I.A. nonchalantly gives the finger to the American pop factory as she sings “You want me be somebody that I’m really not” over a gritty R&B track. The sinister ‘Lovalot’ sees her at her confrontational best, as she throws out rhymes like “Like a Taliban trucker, eating boiled up yucca, I keep my eyes down like I’m in a black burka”, and stretches out “I love a lot” to sound like “I love Allah”, identifying her plight with the cause of Islamic and Russian terrorism. It isn’t just for shock value either, as anyone who knows her father’s political history can attest. The drug-addled ‘Teqkilla’ is a six minute minefield of dissonance and choruses about “sticky sticky weed”. She even throws in a reference to the father of her son, about as close to sentimentality as she gets on this album. ‘Born Free’ has her reverb-laden voice spitting defiance over the bassline of Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’ while ‘Meds And Feds’ features distorted guitars and machine-gun rhythms that scream punk rock. Even when she turns down the noise on the relatively mellow ‘Space’, there is a dystopian quality to the song that is eerily disturbing.
/|/|/|Y/| is an album that is exploratory and experimental, without the self-indulgence that comes with it. It pulls no punches and gives no quarter, serving as a musical metaphor for the struggle between anarchy and order. Always teetering on the edge of disaster, it is a challenging and uncomfortable listen that makes no concessions to the audience. M.I.A. manages to distil the sum of her experiences in this album. Conspiracy theorist paranoia jostles with a cautious optimism. This is an album that is bound to alienate and polarise, inspire both hatred and adulation. I think M.I.A. wouldn’t want it any other way.