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Album review: M.I.A.'s MAYA album

Mia There are so many ways to say “I love you,” and if you’re singing, it can be hard to say anything else. Pop stars are our love machines, expressing desires people are otherwise too uptight or disconnected to put into words. And women artists can hardly find a way beyond that role. Springsteen sings for the working stiff, and Zack de la Rocha slaughters bulls on parade; but when Lady Gaga crafts a commentary on human trafficking, she still has to call it “Bad Romance.”

So, what if you’re a female artist who puts politics first? And then, what happens when you start to feel the muscle that is your heart?

Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., is in that nearly singular circumstance. The UK-born Sri Lankan war child turned agitprop-loving art-school kid achieved critical success and some popular renown with a global mash-up sound that cast her as ultimate street urchin --  "Robin Hoodrat," as the critic Jessica Hopper called her in her perceptive "/\/\/\Y/\" review.

Spitting slogans and throwing beat bombs, M.I.A. danced like a rapper, not a single lady. Her lyrics trumpeted self-confidence and spoke for others' struggles, rarely dwelling on tender emotions. She always looked great, but never bared too much skin. Her androgynous charisma, in fact, was the source of her breakthrough, when two different films, "Pineapple Express" and "Slumdog Millionaire," used her song "Paper Planes" as background to the antics of delinquent boys.

In the midst of M.I.A.'s rise, though, a couple of things happened: She started her own record label, the Interscope Records imprint N.E.E.T., getting into the music industry in earnest. And she met her future husband Benjamin Brewer, son of Warner Music Group CEO and Seagram's magnate Edgar Bronfman Jr., a guy with a different set of issues than M.I.A. may be used to confronting. The two had a son, Ikhyd, last year.

"/\/\/\Y/\" responds to these changes, and it feels like a serious artist's sometimes tentative but very promising step toward a broader vision of herself. In its 12 tracks, M.I.A. explores both what it means to serve as a sexual/romantic ideal in the Beyonce way, and what happens when a self-consciously political artist like herself confronts the sentimental streak deep within.

To be clear, she's not beating her chest and belting out "My Heart Will Go On." "/\/\/\Y/\" contains plenty of agitprop verses that would have worked on her first two albums, though the music on post-punk attacks such as "Born Free" and "Meds and Feds" (the latter provided by Sleigh Bells board-cruncher Derek E. Miller) spews more shrapnel than ever before. The ugliness of certain songs comes off as a built-in defense against the more conciliatory qualities of other ones; on "Meds and Feds," Miller loops her saying, "I just give a damn," as if other tracks, like the Robyn-ish "XXXO" or the dreamy, Diplo-produced "Tell Me Why," might cause fans to think otherwise.

"XXXO" is actually not about sex, but about the making of a sex symbol, the other matter preoccupying M.I.A. these days. Against a chirpy background of "you want me," she sings in a style not unlike the consciously girlish coo of early 1980s New Wavers, about a seduction that turns out to be artistic, not sensual. The male in the picture is her "Tarantino," less likely a lover than a producer trying to turn her big ideas into something more containable, like a come-on. "I can be that actress," she murmurs. But she really can't. She's all push and pull; like her fellow "post-feminist" art star Karen O, she understands that something's gotta break -- either the role designed for her, or herself.

"XXXO" is not the only case of M.I.A. pulling a switcheroo on a pop template. She's trying to have it both ways -- the virgules that form her name on the cover of "/\/\/\Y/\" are typographical marks used in phrases like "either/or" -- and the effort sometimes feels a little stilted. "Teqkilla" is a party anthem that's as cold as ice in a frozen glass; there's an air of condemnation in the way she talks about sticky weed and wooze-inducing alcohol. (That song is also the only place where she addresses her relationship with the liquor-company heir Brewer, in the line, "When I met Seagram's, sent Chivas down my spine.") "Space" is a chill-out room seduction, but it stays pretty vague, and M.I.A. just can't sing the phrase "You conquer me" convincingly.

What works as well as anything she's ever done is her depiction of the personal as something worth fighting for. "Lovealot" is the album's most powerful jam, inspired by one of those photographs of the battle dead that puts a heartbreaking face on unfathomable terrorist actions. M.I.A. merges her voice with that of the teen bride Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who became a suicide-bomber statistic while avenging the death of her husband. Clipping her boasts, M.I.A. turns a call to action into a scared girl's nervous tic. Synths click out a jittery, jagged background. The song doesn't justify anything, but it reminds us that there is a person behind every lit fuse.

M.I.A. has to realize that she no longer lives in a neighborhood where anybody's hiding an arms cache (no workers of the world, anyway -- though who knows what Brentwood's power brokers keep in their wine cellars). Forging her own relationship with the old slogan, "the personal is political," she sometimes miscalculates the distance between herself and her beloved underclass. Yet what she's experiencing is an absolutely necessary struggle -- an attempt by an artist who's defined herself through opposition to engage with the system that she has entered, for better or worse, and to still remain recognizable to herself.

She's also trying, as a mother and a soon-to-be wife, to relate what she feels as Maya to what she says as M.I.A. The bevy of producers who shaped the soundbeds for the musings of "/\/\/\Y/\" push her sound away from grooves and riddims and toward noise, but the sonic and lyrical allusions to the Twitter lifestyle don't really offer a critique. It's more of an attempt to find the blood within the circuitry. What happens to political fervor when it's turned into chatspeak and hashtags? Does a lullaby still soothe a little boy if it's been refined through Auto-Tune?

One of M.I.A.'s most powerful tools is a voice that never sounds processed, even when it's manipulated and chopped and screwed. When her songs have foregrounded ideas, or the stories of oppressed people she didn't necessarily know, she always remains in the thick of it. On "/\/\/\Y/\," she is trying to stay in the thick of her own life. It turns out to be a struggle worthy of a revolutionary.

-- Ann Powers

Three and a half stars (out of four)

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Comments () | Archives (18)

So basically this says her album reflects her new lifestyle as a sell out and hypocrite for joining the system she supposedly railed against by starting a label subsidiary, marrying a rich white dude and moving to Brentwood. Sounds like she's been exploiting the underclass poor war victims all along like a true tool to further her career.

The Gaga tag brought me here from my daily searching on Google. I read up to the Gaga part and and not a word further, because that is where my interest in Pop begins and ends.

But anyway mentioning Gaga is always a good way to get some traffic.

M.I.A. is just another Ticketmaster/Live Nation act. Yawn.

WE LOVE M.I.A. !!!!

I think she was trying to be different in the new album, and can't blame her for not meeting our expectations, as she was pregnant and later caring for her newborn while making this album. I think her next album will be a lot better.

I think she will become a 100 times more successful within the next 5 years.

Is there really any need for this much copy? Couldn't you have said all that in like 250 words rather than than 1,250? Don't you guys know that we have no attention span any more?

Why do I get the feeling that there was more thought put into writing this (overly-ambitious) review, than in the making of the CD?

I don't expect much of this artist - at the end of the day, she comes off as just another self-absorbed poseur recycling other people's ideas - but I do expect more from Ann Powers.

She's the bomb !

Mia is just a face for this music.
She is a fake. She is political yet when asked about her views she has nothing to say. It's okay to be a pop star, just don't act like this revolutionary with heart when all you are is a sell out. I know slumming it in Brentwood with her millionaire husband is as bad as it gets for maya.
Her brain is what's M.I.A.

I think this is a very well thought out review. It actually takes a look at not only the musica but it's relation to the artist and her struggles. Of course everyone can Hate on someone who has struggled their whole lives and then makes it BIG, and leaves the HOOD that doesn't MEAN their struggle has CHANGED it's NOW even MORE complex. I am very HAPPY M.I.A and other artists out there GIVE a DAMN! They CAN just be like EVERYONE else and sing HIT Pop SONGS but that has NOTHING to do with the COMPLEXITIES of HUMAN LIFE!

M.I.A coming BACK with POWER POWER!

Too bad she has run out of the magic.

I thought the album showcased a new side to MIA that we haven't seen.

^ it shows the 'side' that says: I sold out, got me a rich baby daddy and moved to Brentwood.

Wow! So much venom in the peanut gallery - Errrr..., I mean, comments section. I'd like to think that reviews are just that and that one should still judge an album for what one thinks of it themselves. For example, while Ann Powers attempts to suggest that MIA's new album is reflective of her changing circumstances (read: a new-found wealthy lifestyle), she fails to mention that MIA still stays true to her agitpop style with the song "Born Free." The video is set in LA, but is as violent as the Sri Lankan civil war MIA has famously talked about, thus tying together her past and her present.

And for the record, in response to "boo's" comment, her baby's father is mixed race.

"Bad Romance" is a commentary on human trafficking? I have no doubt Gaga might have said that but there's nothing in the song that would back up that claim.

@ boo

It's called "Pseudo-Revolutionary Chic".

It's a business of posing like a revolutionary,
but that's just their "hustle".

I think whiny diatribes of a bitter ex bimbo should not prevent this latest M.I.A. album becoming a great indie success, and I'm glad it has been received well.
Well written Ann Powers!

bum the bull, i don't care about anything that's going on in her personal life, she does her.

the album itself "/\/\ /\ Y /\" i think is a very good one.
i will have to say the overall fell even given strong tracks like "xxxo", "tell me why", etc., there's an underlining "head-banger" feel, not necessarily a bad thing, but just different.

i think the album is a sold 8/10, i think Arular is a bit better, but not by much and Kala is still her best album.

I love me some M.I.A., don't think i'll ever get sick of her.

you might wanna check out her earlier work if you want more vulunerable stuff. check out "do ya."


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