Since day one, M.I.A. has presented herself as an agent provocateur, stirring up trouble via third world politics and explosive beats. Her first mixtape carried the audacious title Piracy Funds Terrorism, and her live shows often displayed images of tanks and soldiers in 8-bit video game graphics, splashed with neon colors. Yet the inevitable reality of being a persistent rabble-rouser also means being something of an asshole, a quality which M.I.A. has displayed to an exponential degree in 2010. From calling Facebook a front for the C.I.A. to tweeting the personal phone number of New York Times reporter Lynn Hirschberg over a matter of some out-of-context quotes and truffle fries, Maya Araprulgasam can baffle, prod and provoke like no other artist today.
While the levels of her provocation and antagonism can capture the public’s attention, none of it would truly matter much if her music didn’t match her bombast. And were it not for the bleeping, buzzing beats of singles like “Galang” or the gunshot chorus of “Paper Planes,” the kind of controversy she creates would likely never materialize. If M.I.A. sounded like Lady Gaga, her commentary about Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers would likely go ignored. But M.I.A.’s music, both in production and in lyrical content, is about confrontation. To date she’s the only artist I know of who routinely name drops terrorist organizations and has a number one record.
That confrontational presence is ever more amplified on her third album, MAYA, or ///Y/, since we’ve already established that she’s kind of an asshole. Yet, typography and (truffle) chips on shoulders aside, MAYA proves once again why the fiery diva anti-hero is a figure worth paying attention to. Simultaneously noisier and more melodic than its predecessor, the career defining standout Kala, MAYA finds Araprulgasam paired with another team of high-profile producers, from prior collaborators Switch and Diplo (who has already expressed his distaste for the record) to Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells, who are signed to M.I.A.’s label, N.E.E.T. With six different producers contributing beats behind Maya’s venomous-to-random lyrics, the record has a far more fractured feel than her two prior efforts. And while its highlights are many, its missteps are also more prevalent than on Kala or Arular.
By starting off the record with the sound of Maya typing the album’s title (presumably) and “Enter,” she comes dangerously close to the sound of two quarters that begins 50 Cent’s debut. And by transitioning to a 59 second mish-mash of buzz and rants like “iPhone connects to the Internet, Connects to Google, connects to the government,” she basically just throws a beat underneath one of any of her infamous and/or irritating Twitter posts. And from there, she only tests the listeners limits further with the headache-inducing drill percussion of “Steppin’ Up,” in which she declares “I run this fuckin’ club.” I choose to interpret this “club” as a blunt object rather than discotheque.
Whatever tribulations M.I.A. causes the listener through those first two tracks, however, she more than redeems with the trippy bounce of single “XXXO,” a song as close to straightforward electro-pop as she’s ever released. Straightforward is still a relative term, of course, and the booming bass is pretty intense for such an inviting song. Ah, but Maya’s an instigator, a troublemaker, and just the sort that would follow up one of her best tracks with one of her worst, the painfully tedious “Teqkilla.” A six-minute party jam that’s about five and a half minutes too long, “Teqkilla” is M.I.A.’s ode to intoxicants, straight down to the lowbrow chorus, “I got sticky, sticky/ icky, icky weeeeed!” If she never quite makes it to Bob Marley levels of political music iconography, then at the very least she’s done a good job of being an alternate for stoned upper middle class teenagers.
With “Lovalot,” M.I.A. returns to a political commentary of sorts, with her dukes-up declaration “I fight anyone who fights me.” And from here, Maya begins to arc toward a more structured sequence of music, if not a fully coherent message. The pop-friendly reggae of “It Takes a Muscle” is not only a fun and accessible tune, but surprisingly affectionate by M.I.A.’s standards. Over a four-chord bounce, Maya bleats out the auto-tuned refrain, “It takes a muscle to love.” Static-ridden jam “It Iz What It Iz” is a downtempo highlight with more dub overtones, and “Born Free,” now highly trafficked and talked about for its depiction of red headed kids being killed, samples Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” over a round of big, heavy drums to great effect.
The flashes of brilliance flecked throughout Maya are among the most mind-blowing creations in M.I.A.’s repertoire. Yet, the explosion of inspiration and artistry is unfortunately intertwined with a sort of batshit critical mass. As high as the highs are, the lows range from muddled to confusing to just plain stupid. M.I.A. is an artist whose career is built on incongruous parts, and as such it’s not necessarily surprising that there’s no middle ground between the brilliant and the baffling. Maya is sensory overload, an almost cartoonish mix of destruction and melody that doesn’t quite reach the wit or thought provoking nature of its predecessor. But when it’s good, it’s amazing, and a solid reminder of why an asshole’s bad behavior is sometimes worth tolerating.
Video: “Born Free”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.