M.I.A. - Maya, Album Review


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M.I.A.’s third album, Maya, is blanketed with a thick layer of noise that is nearly impenetrable, a harsh buzz that is as schizophrenic as it is grating. I’m not talking about the album – although many of the same adjectives would apply to M.I.A.’s recent musical output – I’m talking about everything else.

Let’s run through the talking points needed for any review of Maya. Lynn Hirschberg wrote a long and mostly boring profile in New York Times Magazine that made both M.I.A. and Hirschberg seem self-important and confused. The most quoted passage of the entire story revolved around truffle fries. Maya’s lead single was accompanied by an obtusely provocative music video featuring gratuitous anti-ginger violence. Diplo, supposedly barred from the Exile on Main Street-esque recording house in Los Angeles by M.I.A’s fiancé Ben Bronfman, called the album a turd. M.I.A. streamed Maya a month before its release in perhaps the most frustrating way possible, splitting tracks into thirty-second chunks. There was drama, there was pettiness, and everyone involved generally came out on the other side looking a little less respectable.

I am disappointed. I am disappointed that M.I.A. has gone from one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World to a pretty standard spotlight-hungry pop star, seemingly on the verge of collapse. I am disappointed that so much of the conversation about Maya (including this review, thus far) has – perhaps by necessity – revolved around matters largely separate from M.I.A.’s music. Most of all, though, I am disappointed that I like this album. Like, I really like it.

Maya is edgy, and I mean that quite literally. It has sharp edges – the power tool opening of “Steppin’ Up,” the synthetic flashes and waves of “Teqkilla,” the Sleigh Bells guitar riff of “Meds and Feds” - that jut out at weird angles and poke at you in the ear. It’s not a comfortable album, but it’s not meant to be. It’s gritty and unpolished, more concerned with creating a cohesive aesthetic out of disparate styles than delivering a particularly profound message. It’s self-absorbed, lyrically simple, and weirdly danceable. In other words, it’s M.I.A.

Like Arular and Kala before it, Maya finds pop riffs in unlikely places and straps inconvenient topics to their backs. The message is heavy-handed and simplistic: We live in a digital age, and that is probably bad. The lyrics are pretty unremarkable and seem perilously tied to a transient time. “Head-bone connects to the neck-bone, neck-bone connects to the arm-bone, arm-bone connects to the hand-bone, hand-bone connects to the internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government” chants M.I.A.’s brother Sugu on introduction “The Message”. Later, M.I.A. invites us to chat while playing Wii, and points out that we’re tweeting her like Tweety Bird on our iPhones. It’s unclear just how she feels about all this connectivity, but the invasive YouTube imagery on the cover of the album insinuates a bit of frustration. It all seems a bit silly, to be honest, this criticism of our digital age – particularly when streaming an album (produced on computers, no doubt) via MySpace.

But M.I.A. has never really been about the lyrics, despite critical sentiment. Her role in bringing the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger group into the spotlight came more via fallout regarding her Visa issue than the songs on Arular. Her most successful songs to date – “Galang,” “Paper Planes,” “Boyz” – have included as many references to weed as to war, and have relied on commercial placement to reach a wide audience. Like it or not, M.I.A. lives and dies on pop hooks.

Which makes Maya a pretty gutsy step. Maya makes you work for it, coating flashy songs with grungy guitars, spitting voices through megaphones. It’s a punk ethos, an intentional discord meant to shake things up. The album is a challenge, a push to see if we’re really as ready for the high-passion, low fidelity movement as we’ve indicated. It doesn’t always succeed (whatever that means) but it still has some absolute bangers. “Teqkilla” is an unabashedly spastic tune built for stereos where the bass rattles the floor, while “Space” mellows things out nicely without dragging. “Lovalot” and “It Takes A Muscle” reveal a gentler M.I.A. than the one we’ve come to know, even though she may be surrounded by bombshells and barricades.

Even when Maya isn’t dead on, it shows glimmers of a potentially awesome future. “Tell Me Why,” a fairly dull track, showcases M.I.A.’s voice amongst choral backing and is a textbook example of well-applied auto-tune. “Steppin’ Up” begins to incorporate Sleigh Bells-style production into a more vocal-centric environment. Even the album’s alienating lead single, “Born Free,” manages to find stomping grounds amongst the detritus without seeming too out of place.

It is that combination of brilliance and unsatisfying near-brilliance that gives me the feeling that Maya will get far more plays as time wears on. We’re going to look back at this album as establishing the foundation for some pretty fantastic music, whether on the part of M.I.A. or others. It’s a roller-coaster ride – like anything involving M.I.A. - and at times it doesn’t feel like a completely finished product. But maybe she’s got it right when she sings, on “XXXO,” “You want me be somebody that I’m really not.” Let’s stop applying our external judgments and just listen to this album for what it is – a self-indulgent, confused piece of art that just happens to be pretty damn good. Words by Chris Barth.

82 — [Rating Scale]

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