Politics and all, there’s still something about Maya
M.I.A.’s two previous albums were political firebombs, and so her third studio LP—/\/\ /\ Y /\ (titled after her birth name, Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam)—certainly isn’t remarkable in that respect. Nor is it remarkable for the flurry of hubbub surrounding its release; at this point, the ginger-slaughtering music video for the album’s first single and Arulpragasam’s unhinged Twitter shenanigans are de rigueur for an artist who unabashedly adopts the iconography of the Tamil Tigers and rose to fame via “Paper Planes,” a song with a gunfire-addled hook that proclaims “All I wanna do is take your money.”
No, what’s remarkable about the Sri Lankan rapper’s latest foray is the new album’s tone and tenor. /\/\ /\ Y /\ is a collection of sparse, industrial-influenced tracks that sound more like post-apocalyptic Nine Inch Nails than Arulpragasam’s trademark realpolitik rap. It has no central theme or coherent message; it’s a sprawling, rambling shotgun-blast of political fury mixed with condemnations of our hyper-technological society and outright paranoia.
“The Message” opens the album with a clacking keyboard and a beat like automatic-weapon before monotonic vocals put a dystopian twist on the classic spiritual “Dry Bones,” where the headbone connects to the earphones, to the iPhone, to “the Google” and then to the Government. “Steppin’ Up” then dispels any lingering subtlety, with a caterwaul of industrial noise blanketing your ears as the singer’s super-distorted vocals emerge from the maelstrom and promise to “fuck your speakers up, throwing fire like a mob / Flashbang thunder, demolition job.”
The medium is the message, and—as the YouTube-drenched cover art hints—M.I.A.’s medium is as schizophrenic as it is bleak. Some tracks purposefully skip notes, serrating already rickety rhythms and making the album feel broken. It’s an electro-mechanical soundscape where protest songs and club jams alike go ‘splat’ on its dour canvas, and there’s plenty of both on the album, which sees Arulpragasam sloughing off some of her Third-World provocateur cachet in favor of syrupy-sweet bangers. “XXXO” is a synth-happy dancefest (tailor-made for a Lil Wayne or Drake remix) on which she drops some truly awful lines about “tweeting me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone.” And closer “Space” may as well be subtitled “The Stoner Song,” all pseudo-profound pop-philosophy and hazy, off-kilter beats. Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells (a recent signee to M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label) weighs in with production work on “Meds and Feds,” but their collaboration’s mouth-watering potential results in a repetitive rave-rocker that sees M.I.A. repeating a single phrase ad nauseum. “I just give a damn,” she says over and over—but apparently not enough of a damn to make a good song.
More encouragingly, she matches her brainless fare with the piercing “Lovalot,” a short burst of glitch-rap delving into the mind of a young radical Islamist: “I really love a lot,” she purrs, repeating the line several times and stretching out the final two words until they become “Allah.” The song is based around the story of Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, the Dagestani woman who suicide-bombed the Moscow subway in early 2010 in retaliation for the death of her husband. “Like a hand-me-down sucka throwing bombs out of Mecca,” Arulpragasam snaps—and it could be either an indictment or a lament.
“Born Free” (the semi-infamous video depicting a red-haired boy being mercilessly shot in the head) is a trippy and frenetic scramble that sees M.I.A. grappling with her own cognitive dissonance—that of a third-world refugee turned pop-star millionaire, who’s still trying to write genuine protest songs: “You could try to find ways to be happier / You might end up somewhere in Ethiopia / You can think big with your idea / You ain’t never gonna find Utopia.” It’s a shame the song was so thoroughly neutered by Romain Gavras’ music video, which rendered it brainless, artless Ché-Tee agitprop with all the subtlety of an Alex Jones radio rant.
At its core, /\/\ /\ Y /\ boasts a handful of great—and truly subversive—ideas, which make up for its lackluster filler. Like the rebels she so often lionizes, Arulpragasam is conducting hit-and-run warfare on modern pop, snatching a hook here, a melody there, and then falling back to reshape these pilfered rhythms into unfettered anti-establishment anthems. /\/\ /\ Y /\ pushes this approach even further, applying guerilla tactics to a cold and impersonal musical style in a critique of the modern surveillance society’s potential to oppress. In the process, she’s humanized her subjects; in her failure, she’s humanized herself.