Maya Arulpragasam’s music has finely enmeshed the personal and the political, using her multi-varied upbringing—daughter of an activist with possible ties to the Sri Lankan militant group Tamil Tigers who moves to the UK and becomes involved in London’s Britpop and hip-hop scenes—to bracing effect. She urged the world to pay attention to the plight of African and Asian citizens, and the diaspora, just as she urged you to lean into her club-ready bangers.
On her fourth album, M.I.A.’s focus has shifted. As the cover art suggests, this LP is a tight close-up on her world: her artistic abilities and credibility, her sexual bravado and simply her skills on the mic. It’s a telling move too that she calls this Matangi, her birth name, and the name of Hindu goddess of music. And on this album, the line between those two definitions is completely blurred.
M.I.A. is so assured here that rather than spending its running time decrying her critics, she knocks them down to size in an interlude that doesn’t even hit the 90-second mark. Beyond and around that she plays up her vast hip-hop credentials in language that is knowingly retro (she references both ‘90s Death Row Records affiliate Lady of Rage and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” on “Only 1 U”), cheeky (“YOLO…what that even mean though?/back home where I come from we keep being born again…that’s why they invented karma”), and, on the title track, wise to her global reach as she stutter-steps her way through a long list of nations.
This feeling extends beyond the lyrics into the way Arulpragasam varies her vocals throughout Matangi. These tonal shifts come out as the smooth dancehall spin she gives the reggae swing of “Double Bubble Trouble” or the coy falsetto she turns to during “Lights.” She also calmly tosses her vocal parts to her producer’s scissorhands, letting Switch or Weeknd collaborator Doc McKinney chop them to meet their rhythmic and temporal needs.
Where M.I.A.’s surety might let her down is by plopping her almost two-year-old single “Bad Girls” smack dab in the middle of the album. There’s still no denying that song’s potency, but it feels cut from a completely different cloth than the rest of Matangi. It glares out like a gap in a smile. The inclusion is thematically shrewd, as no other song here is as sexually demonstrative. It is Danja’s otherwise crackling production that somehow refuses to mesh with the tracks surrounding it. We’ll chalk that up to skittishness on the part of her new label, Interscope.
The fun now becomes watching the rest of the world react to Matangi. Unbeknownst to me, the critical party line is that M.I.A.’s previous effort /\/\/\Y/\ was an artistic failure (though I say it was an obvious precursor to the clattering sound of Yeezus and Death Grips). Surely those naysayers will declare this a fine return to form. From this desk, it is the only step forward for someone whose has proven herself so far ahead of the curve that everyone from Madge to Versace have come knocking on her door. With that kind of nod from the aesthetic gods, who wouldn’t strut a little bit?