A new MIA album then, and what a sonic assault it purports to be. While first two albums, ‘Arular’ and ‘Kala’ were genre-defining, melodic, booty-shaking thumpers, ‘/\/\/\Y/\’ is a different entity. This one is about her, about Maya Arulpragasam, not a stylistic tribute to her dad, not a world-spanning ghetto-tech celebration of her mum. This is Maya, and her headspace is one conflicted place.
‘Kala’, her second album, cemented her as the lead vocalist of a new sound, with producers like Diplo and Switch creating noisy world music behind her. But she spawned a legion of imitators, soundalikes and do-betters, like Lady Gaga, Liz Phair (bizarrely) and Santigold, where is where ‘XXXO’ the lead single seems to draw us in. MIA was quoted as saying ‘Lady Gaga sounds more like me than I do’ so it’s strange to hear ‘XXXO’, where she sounds like someone doing an impression of her. There’s a lot more singing on the album, with others like ‘It IZ Wot It Iz’ and ‘Meds and Feds’ all featuring her heavily autotuned voice over marching clicks, bleeps and drums. It’s like she’s taken the New Yorker’s accusation that she can’t sing to heart and decided to croon instead of upstart, uprise and upchuck polemical motifs, soundbites and rallying calls. Sometimes the autotune clangs making you wonder if she needs it there. The only time it really hits home is its sparing use on Diplo’s incessantly rumbling and skanky digital dub effort, ‘It Takes a Muscle.’ ‘Born Free,’ sampling Suicide and sounding like a klaxon of rage, intent, an ‘I’m not fucking around’ message of precision and clarity to anyone who has dismissed her as style over substance, to anyone who suddenly likes her more poppy side because of ‘Paper Planes.’ It is loud and noisy and messy and bodyshocks you into submission. ‘Born Free’ is the best song on the album.
Sadly, this is because it’s the most obvious hit, the most clear statement, the biggest loudest thumpingest groovement on offer. A lot of mid-tempo croons and noise-filled nausea movements sandwich it. MIA has an issue with the internet. It’s the biggest chip on her shoulder and she rails against privacy, Facebook, Google, and CIA monitoring. She fights world poverty, political fuckeries and corruption. There must be something else at play. Her VISA issues are common knowledge and her entire private life is played out through news stories, which she retaliates against with blogs, tweets, viral videos and garish, oversaturated colourful loud noise.
That is what I think on my first listen. And halfway through my second. Then it all clicks into place. And I’m with her. Again, like it’s 2007 and ‘Bamboo Banger’ has just kicked into gear.
This is a great album. I was unsure and unsteady on first listen. It felt too earnest and angry and melody-free. There wasn’t enough of the calm collected MIA, wearing a general’s hat, stood at the front of the dancefloor, leading the charge, pumping her fist in righteous indignation. But that’s the MIA that Kala and Arular spawned. This is the Maya behind the MIA. The MIA behind the blogs, tweets, missives, virals- this is the real her. This is her conflicts- both internal and external, her contradictions, her uninformed opinions, this is her heart in the right place. This music is messy and noisy, slow and throbbing, not as dancefloor-focused as previous efforts, the soundbites are thicker, faster and masked in more vocal effocts but when songs like ‘Teqkila,’ and ‘Space’ and ‘Meds and Feds’ drop you know MIA ain’t fucking around. Dismiss her all you want- you’ll only make her come back stronger. Satirise her all you want- she’ll still have the last laugh. Imitate her all you want- she will always be ahead of the game. And that’s why she’s one of the world’s most important popstars, because with her you get something that’s real, unfocused, unrehearsed and unpreened. It’s not a perfect album but it’s a brave move when all the world thinks your next stop is pop stardom, when you’re expected to come back asserting your authority over Lady Gagas and the like. Warts, tantrums, shouts and all… and once ‘/\/\/\Y/\’ has grown on you like a CIA-funded virus, you will not stop dancing, fighting or pumping your fist.
Welcome back MIA- we’ve missed you.