opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
“M.I.A. coming back with power power” – that’s the central lyric of “Bamboo Banga,” the opening track of the Sri Lanka-via-London pop star’s most successful album, 2007’s Kala. But back then, did anyone expect Maya Arulpragasam to return any other way? The line didn’t mean much, but it was effective and successful; it made M.I.A sound cool as fuck.
Indisputable, unflappable coolness has been M.I.A.’s most evident and appealing quality since her name-making 2004 mixtape with Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism. Her magnetic charisma sucked dub reggae, dancehall, U.K. bass music, hip-hop, electro, Bollywood samples, and punk rock into its orbit and spat it all back out again as a decidedly internet-era, pan-global pop blast. Unfortunately, M.I.A. was also happy to pilfer third-world musical traditions to give her own work a hip edge, while chastising us about the horrors of capitalist imperialism; according to her best-known lyrics, all she wanted to do was shoot people and take their money, but she also wanted us to wake up to the entrenched violence and poverty of the global hustle. Where was the line between talk and walk, between making political statements to do good and making them because doing good is “cool”? M.I.A.’s music put a ton of pressure on sensitive issues of privilege – appropriation, colonization, white guilt, interventionism, hypocrisy – but the millionaire herself refused to address or take responsibility for them, telling us in between handfuls of truffle fries that we were the problem, not her. In 2010, Lynn Hirschberg spoke up for helpless hipsters everywhere and wrote a New York Times Magazine profile of the musician so devastating, it sank the critical reception of that year’s LP /\/\/\Y/\ and came close to reducing M.I.A.’s career to a punchline.
So when that line from “Bamboo Banga” reappears here during the outro to the best song on her fourth album, MATANGI, it communicates a lot more than just, “I’m cool as fuck.” After 2010’s P.R. disasters, /\/\/\Y/\’s critical and commercial failure, scandalously flipping the bird at the Superbowl, a divorce, lawsuits, Twitter rants, a repeatedly delayed release date, and endless struggles with her label, many of us wondered if M.I.A. would ever manage to come back at all, let alone with “power power.” Yet here’s MATANGI at last, and here’s M.I.A. once again, miraculously, awesomely, “coming back with power power.” In fact, that may be a huge understatement.
The opening salvo from MATANGI was last year’s single “Bad Girls,” a great track accompanied by an immortally badass video courtesy of Romain Gavras. If that video were released in 2009, I’d have had to write a long-winded blog post taking M.I.A. and Gavras to task for taking the lived oppression of Saudi women and turning it into an image of cool in order to promote a major-label pop song. But it was 2012, and I didn’t write that post because I didn’t have the energy anymore, and the music world didn’t care anymore. M.I.A.’s public shaming in 2010 was so brutal that it no longer felt necessary or worthwhile to call her out. Her appropriation of global issues to which she had no legitimate claim in the name of her own image was just “M.I.A. being M.I.A.” – still problematic, but less so than if she’d passionately insisted the video was intended to raise awareness. “Bad Girls” still sparked a minor liberal-blogosphere meltdown, but for most listeners, it just didn’t matter anymore. If you got the subtext of the video, you got it, and if you got angry about it, fine, but if neither of those things happened, then you just pretended you were surfing on a sports car popping a 90-degree wheelie in the desert like the rest of us. All of MATANGI is like that. You can listen to the lyrics of “Come Walk With Me” – “You ain’t gotta throw your hands up in the air, ‘cause tonight we ain’t acting like we don’t care” – or you can listen to the music, which will almost certainly make you want to put them in the air like you don’t care. As ever, M.I.A. contradicts herself, and eight years after she first graffiti-tagged our hearts with Arular, we should know better than to expect anything different. Bullshit continues to abound when she opens her mouth, but magic happens when she enters the studio. What’s more important? The choice is yours. I recommend the latter, because MATANGI is a total blast, one catchy, tough, clever, airtight, hyper-current track after another for a solid hour of off-the-hook fun that synthesizes everything that worked about Arular, Kala, and /\/\/\Y/\ while discarding those ideas that didn’t. Co-written and co-produced by M.I.A. and a team of peers led by longtime collaborator Switch, MATANGI is wild, chaotic, bustling, and a little unhinged, but it’s also creative, innovative, and eminently accessible. It’s instantly listenable, danceable, quotable, and loveable.
As a performer, M.I.A.’s as incredibly cool as ever, fierce and intelligent and charismatic, and the motivating force of her personality alone sees some of the more rickety compositions here through to success. Her so-so singing voice is still annoyingly slathered in AutoTune, but her melodies are irresistible, and when she hits a good flow, her rapping – which hops between disparate topics like WikiLeaks and #YOLO without missing a beat – is unstoppable (see: “Bring The Noize”). There’s some effort made to update her aesthetic for the times, most obviously in the near-omnipresent rumbles of searing post-dubstep bass that’s become hip-hop’s technique du jour and in the dark, bleary synth tones popularized by acts like the Weeknd (who is sampled on two tracks here, including the lovely, monolithic “Exodus”). But there’s also a strong sense that M.I.A. doesn’t really need such assistance, since, after all, her own records are key stepping stones leading to pop’s present – something that’s bluntly asserted when she samples and then self-deprecatingly distorts recognizable fragments of Kala (the title track here, for instance, is a sinister rework of “Boyz”).
It’s hard to pick highlights from a record so consistently excellent and so perfectly sequenced. There’s not a dud to be found; even the skit, “Boom,” is worth hearing out every time, which is not something one usually writes about rap skits. MATANGI hits the ground running and only pauses for one water break (“Lights”) over the course of its fifteen tracks. “Bad Girls” is still a showstopper, but most of the songs here could easily give it a run for its money on the dancefloor or on the car stereo (notably “Y.A.L.A.” and “Warriors”). The obvious pick for another hit is MATANGI’s magnificent pinnacle, “Come Walk With Me.” I imagine this is what Interscope execs were referring to when they criticized the record as “too positive.” I also imagine M.I.A. simply misinterpreted a compliment, because this song’s an absolute triumph, an obscenely catchy shapeshifter of a lighter-waving anthem that self-destructs into a dancehall freakout, then picks up the pieces and rebuilds itself so that it’s even more beautiful and more incandescent than before. Genuinely moving on an album full of pokerfaced bangers, it’s the only moment that readily presents itself as an occasion to reflect on the person who’s the source of all this music and all this controversy, someone who’s been through the ringer and let us all watch it happen – celebrity, pariah, mother, daughter, divorcee, Londoner, Sri Lankan, third-world, first-world, globetrotter, provocateur, activist, artist. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” she sings, echoing a cliché previously embraced by another contentious 21st-century pop star, Mr. Kanye West. That line carries weight because there’s been so much that hasn’t quite killed M.I.A.’s career, and not for want of trying.
Contradiction, confusion, and complexity are the forces that make popular culture compelling, and it’s long been clear M.I.A. has more of that kind of ammunition up her sleeve than most. The “Bad Girls” video and its reception may be an effective illustration of our volatile relationship to this challenging musician, but “Come Walk With Me” is the best representation of what makes her special. Because it’s an arena ballad whose beating heart is the not-so-tender lyric, “I’m gonna still fuck with you.” Naturally. This is M.I.A. – would we really settle for anything less? [B+]
Stream MATANGI in full here.