Mathangi Arulpragasam delivers intriguingly fluxed up genre bending third album
Back in the last century, Stereo MCs advised us all to get ourselves connected. Get yourself connected Noughties-style, though, and you're never too far from 'The Man'. The intriguingly fonted // / Y / opens thus: "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."
The third album from Mercury-nominated, British rapper and political activist Mathangi 'Maya' Arulpragasam – better known as M.I.A. – is a sonically complicated multicultural concatenation of raps, rhymes, shrieks, squawks, samples, newstalk, digital beats, bleats and techno-babble. It's also very much a record of the moment – iPhones, tweets, search engines and so forth are all name-checked in the lyrical mix.
Genre-wise, file under 'Miscellaneous'. Over 12 eclectic, skip-hopping tracks, M.I.A. never really beds down in any one place. Co-produced with Diplo, Blaqstarr, Rusko and Switch (seriously, who names these guys?), it is by turns poppy, rocky, industrial, experimental, electronic, alternative, hip-hop, etc. You can occasionally dance to it, but never for very long: that, it seems, isn't the point. Rather, it's like a wild spin of the dial through the distant stations of a Burroughs-ian dead city radio. After a few listens, then, it starts to make a warped kind of distorted sense, based on the nonsense of it all. Thematically, it's all about control, war, media, politics, religion and individuality. Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you, seems to be the message.
There's some great music here. Lead single 'XXXO' is a brilliant slice of R'n'B, showcasing a side of M.I.A.'s talent that her label executives would probably prefer she further exploited. No chance, though, "You want me be somebody who I'm really not," she declaims.
Politically pivotal standout is 'Lovalot' (which she cunningly sings as "I really love Allah"). The song alludes to the now iconic, viral photo of a gun-wielding Russian Islamic couple. The husband was a terrorist leader killed by Moscow police last year – an act his teenage wife attempted to avenge by suicide-bombing the city subway. The working title was 'A/bdurakh/man/ova', after her surname.
It opens with the bitter observation, "They told me this is a free country/ but now it feels like a chicken factory." Pretty soon she's urgently rapping, "Like a Taliban trucker eatin' boiled up yucca/ Get my eyes done like I'm in the burka." Later she snarls, "Like a hand-me-down sucker throwin' bombs out at Mecca." By the end of it, it's hard to figure out which side she's on – which of course is part of MIA's enigma.
'It Takes A Muscle' is one of the more conventional tracks, and provides an oasis of slight reggae-ish calm amidst the general din. 'Meds and Feds' sounds like your CD's scratched – but brilliantly so, once you get the bizarre buzz.
All told, it's a glorious musical – and at times deliberately anti-musical – smorgasbord. Wild, unhindered, audacious, adventurous, brash, confident and artistic, this is an intriguingly experimental album that will probably alienate some of M.I.A.'s Kala fans, though that's unlikely to bother her. As she sings on the frenetically feral 'Born Free', "I don't wanna talk about money 'cos I got it."
At this early stage of knowing it, // / Y / seems to working off too many different angles to be a classic, but its daunting eclecticism is undoubtedly a stepping stone to somewhere even more interesting.
Spaced-out... the final frontier.
KEY TRACK: 'TEQKILLA'
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