MIA: /\/\/\Y/\ Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are four reactions, four impressions, Four Takes on /\/\/\Y/\ by MIA.
I should probably preface this with an admission of the giant chip I tote over one shoulder when it comes to M.I.A. and her music, like many of her detractors I was delighted when Lynn Hirschberg’s expose on the pop star hit the NY Times mag and even more thrilled at Ms. Arulpragasam’s decidedly juvenile reaction. This isn’t a gossip blog however, so rather than crow endlessly about that for 200 words we’ll get down to business here.
M.I.A. seems to be taking a stab towards the “confrontational” on this album, and you can tell because it’s got a bunch of grating synth effects all over it. Hate it when producers take a big saw synth and just sort of wobble the pitch in lieu of an actual melody? Yeah, me too. The rapping isn’t any better than we’re used to, sophomoric rhymes like “they told me this is a free country, and now it feels like a chicken factory” are pretty much par for the course, and M.I.A.’s flow is still stuck in nyeah-nyeah limerick land. “XXXO” sounds like the record company asked for a Lady Gaga single, while “Teqkilla” name drops alcohol companies (giving shout-outs to big corporations is so rebellious!) and features the most obnoxious hook you’re likely to hear all year. “Illygirl” seems to nail Maya’s identity crisis down pretty succinctly, wherein poppy club-rap braggadocio sits uncomfortably next to the kind of political sloganeering that you’d find on a fifteen year old’s studded jacket. No one can doubt M.I.A.’s ambition, and I don’t even find her politics particularly redolent, but when the word “revolutionary” gets applied to your music, one would hope you’d attempt to deliver a final product with some nuance, or at least a bit more depth.
Jon Behm (Reviler)
MIA really shit the bed this time. I’ll skip the rhetoric you are bound to hear in every discussion of Maya about the various ways the singer has managed to stay in the public’s eye pretty much this entire year. Bottom line: Maya Arulpragasam usually makes hits and sirs, Maya is no hit. And I say this as a fan that thoroughly enjoyed both of MIA’s previous records, and consider “Paper Planes” to be one of the better bangers of this decade. Maya, to put it succinctly, sucks.
The record can be separated into two main styles: MIA as abrasive avant punk as well as MIA as bamboo banga’. The former consists of songs like “Born Free” “Steppin Up,” and “Meds and Feds,” which are intentionally scuffed up to try and come up with some sharp edges. Instead of an edge though, the unwieldy, ugly tunes end up sounding like badly produced imitations of Bonde Do Role songs.
The latter is MIA’s tried and true sound of old, crafting songs out of Diplo/Rusko/Switch beats and propulsive sound collages. Unfortunately, most of the tunes of this stripe are poorly constructed and sloppily written (songs like “It Iz What it iz” and “Internet Connection” contain lyrics that are embarrassingly inane). This style also brings us to the album’s few listenable jams, songs like “It Takes Muscle” and “Space” are Maya’s poppiest, but also its least grating. And even the best few tracks on Maya only come within spitting distance of Kala and Arular’s worst. Let’s do ourselves all a favor and put this one back on the shelf.
If Arular and Kala were indications of how M.I.A’s pop sensibilities were supposed to be subtly interfused with a mix of revolutionary references, then |\/|/\Y/\ goes at the jugular right from the gate. From the clicks of a keyboard on “The Message”, the dancehall calm of “It Takes A Muscle”, and even the drills, thrills and kills off “Steppin’ Up”, shows she’s not fucking around, and can either annoy your eardrums to hell or have you dancing subconsciously. So it kind of is a letdown when it is right there outright for you, but maybe she has a point on “It Is What It Is,” to be the rationale behind the style. But don’t let that dectract you from |\/|/\Y/\ one bit, she is well aware of what has taken place, and rather than continue on the path that has now been beaten to death by copycats and soundalikes, she has chosen to hit on the defensive from all angles to make it sound uncomfortable, to make the listener queasy, and to unnerve every last sentiment in you, such as in the rabid punk rock stylings of “Born Free”, the lead off single and respective 9-minute short film that accompanies the song. All of this creates a very elaborate, yet explanatory sound that let’s M.I.A flip the fuck out. There is no doubt or uncertainty that this is M.I.A in her finest hour.
Josh Keller (Reviler)
I know you are supposed to leave personality out when writing about an album, but when an artist so wraps themselves in their persona as MIA has, you can’t ignore. Like a day-glo rich kid wearing a Che Guevara T-Shirt, MIA seems to epitomize the kind of phony, tone deaf, petty self promoting asshole that I cannot stand. Her music (save for the shit made by Diplo, who is about as big a megalomaniac as her, just more talented) is trite and uninspired. Her “lyrical content” and subject matter (including the spoken word interludes) are a mile wide and an inch deep. The music, which to her credit isn’t created by her, is even less engaging than her past work, which itself wasn’t keeping competing artists awake at night with its stunning precision. The album is 54 minutes of trivial (at best) and downright annoying (at worst) pop drivel that is posing as “alternative.” Maybe my listening experience was overshadowed by my built in dislike for MIA, but either way, this is an album I listened to twice (to make sure I wasn’t missing something awesome) and will not be spinning any more. One can only hope MIA will simply fade away, but that is probably asking too much from someone so convinced of their unbelievable talent.