CD Review: M.I.A. – /\/\/\Y/\
Reviewed by: Dorise Gruber
The evolution of Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., has been fascinating to watch over the course of the last five years. Her originality, artistry, and unique rapping style appeal to indie, hip hop, and house fans alike – each new album continues to push the boundaries of what listeners expect from her and from music in general. In M.I.A.’s most recent release, Maya, (or more technically speaking,
“/\/\/\Y/\”), we’re seeing a much more jagged side of M.I.A. With her recent foray into motherhood, this hardness is juxtaposed with more singing and more references to love than M.I.A. fans may be used to. Maya is more experimental and more industrial than prior albums, and though it may be less listenable overall, the hooks will burrow in your brain.
Maya’s major themes can be summed up in the first one-minute song on the album, “The Message.” “The Message” is a spoof on the children’s tune “Dry Bones,” where your heel bone’s connected to your foot bone, and so on and so forth. M.I.A. takes this rather innocent concept and turns it into an eerie connection between our bodies, technology, and the Man. This scribble introduces the album’s overarching motifs: wariness of government, industrial v. technological existence, and self-expression/self-exploration.
The most talked about track from her new album has got to be “Born Free,” not necessarily having much to do with the song itself, but more from the accompanying NSFW video, which made national headlines and was quickly pulled down from YouTube as being too offensive. Without overthinking it, more than being about the lyrics themselves, the song seems like it was created with the intention of being a backdrop to this short film: a vehicle to get across M.I.A.’s political message, personalizing the horrors of genocide for Anglo-viewers by showcasing Gingers in a rather graphic slaughter. If the song had come out sans video, despite being one of the more intense tracks on Maya, I’m not sure how much attention would be paid to the song alone. At this point, though, the two are so inextricably linked that you can’t hear it without being reminded of the video’s gruesome message, intensifying the listening experience.
Some of the most successful songs on the album are ones M.I.A. elected as early singles following the “Born Free” video release, including “XXXO” and “Steppin Up.” Listeners familiar with house techno Basement Jaxx and french synth-pop Yelle may experience familiar flashes throughout “XXXO.” Mixed by Jay-Z, it’s perhaps the most listenable complex track on the album, and will likely be the song with the most far-ranging appeal. “Steppin Up” will be another certain hit with listeners, even though it has a really hard, industrial feel. It goes so far as to feature chainsaws and drilling over the track, but it’s still easy to bob your head along to, and if you can escape this song without having the impossibly catchy “rubadubdub” or “you know who I am” stuck in your head, you should be extremely proud of your superhuman resistance.
Other catchy songs on the album, but in a more abstract way, include “Lovalot,” “Story to Be Told,” and “Meds and Feds.” “Lovalot” is really demonstrative of the M.I.A. persona, balancing her politics and her toughness with the more delicate but strongly-worded echo “I really love a lot/but I fight the ones that fight me.” When she extends out “lovalot” in the hook, with her accent it winds up sounding like a more religious message: “I really love Allah.” Continuing on Eastern themes, “Story To Be Told” features a haunting chorus and a technologized beat over old-world instruments. “Meds and Feds” is similarly gripping, but conjures a more barbaric image of a pulsing rave with strobe lights, scantily clad sweaty bodies, and frenetic dance.
“It Takes a Muscle,” “It Iz What It Iz,” “Space,” and “Tell Me Why” all show softer, more personal sides of M.I.A. in addition to showcasing a fair amount of singing (and autotune). “It Takes a Muscle,” a Spectral Display cover, has a relaxed Caribbean beat and encourages relationship resiliency – one of her more optimistic productions. “It Iz What It Iz” is a rather unremarkable drone, but it’s smooth and relaxed, and I imagine the kind of track M.I.A. might use to put her baby to sleep (she even features infant gurgles toward the end of the tune). “Space,” another cozy melody, features unusually clean M.I.A. vocals. “Tell Me Why” has a mainstream quality to it, but may be a little too far outside of M.I.A.’s traditional style for her die-hard fans yet still too edgy to bridge out to pop fans, so will either be far-reaching or will be a miss more often than a hit with listeners.
The riskiest song on the album, “Teqkilla,” actually has a pretty rad beat, but introduces a horrible technological synth sound over the track that makes it very hard to listen to. The intense tones sound like you’re being aggressively beamed by aliens. When the tones go a little lower in their register, they sound like something out of the 80s game “Simon,” or maybe like playing laser tag and getting a “wooooomp wooooomp” buzzing once you’re shot. The only tolerable way to ingest this song is if you’re listening to it at your computer (way too intense through earbuds), and even then since the song clocks in at over 6 minutes it can still be a bit tough to take. Unlike “Steppin Up,” which deftly balances noise and music, the tech-tones overshadow whatever musicality is to be found in “Teqkilla.”
M.I.A. continues to be one of the most original artists of this generation, her versatility unparalleled and her political and musical voice seductive. While her previous albums have been more dancey, more tribal, and more listenable, Maya is a statement. It’s an exclamation point on her convictions, an exploration of her maturity, and a giant middle finger to anyone who thinks they’ve got her all figured out.
You can currently stream the entire album on M.I.A.’s MySpace page here.
1. The Message
2. Steppin’ Up
6. Story to Be Told
7. It Takes a Muscle
8. It Iz What It Iz
9. Born Free
10. Meds and Feds
11. Tell Me Why
13. XXXO (Blaqstarr Dirty Mix) [Bonus]