M.I.A.’s spectacular third album has much to offer an inquisitive and open mind.
Matthew Bennett 2010
Some musicians fret about the difficulties of writing a new album. Since 2007’s hugely successful Kala, Maya Arulpragasam has designed clothing, set up her own label (N.E.E.T.), been in and out of the press for several reasons mostly unrelated to her latest material, and had her first child. Little has been said, relatively speaking, about Kala’s follow-up, at least beyond the blogosphere. But here the artist known as M.I.A. has unleashed an album that's not difficult in the slightest, instead coming across as deliberately daunting. Do not sit back. Do not relax. M.I.A.'s airborne and she's landing near you, now.
Striding through metal, dancehall, space pop and dubstep, our multicultural mascot has littered /\/\/\Y/\ – “Maya” – with politicised sonic motifs: from marching drums, gunshots and modems to heavy machinery and blaring sirens. It's loud, proud, and taking no prisoners.
Despite retaining the services of the world's most cutting-edge dance producers – Diplo, Switch, Blaqstarr and dubstep's aggressive young talent Rusko – M.I.A.’s magpie approach sees her cannibalise these producers' studio skills to build instead an edifice of terse sound that stands alone. As she raps herself: “Imitators? Stick it!”
Thematically /\/\/\Y/\ is consumed by the internet. Opener The Message sets the tone with laptop key percussion as a male voice foregrounds issues of data and institutional control with lyrics in nursery rhyme pastiche: “The hand-bone connects to the internet / connects to the Google / connects to the Government.”
Wordplay is also rife on Story Told, as an Islamic prayer call morphs into the melody of childhood ditty Frère Jacques, explicitly juxtaposing naivety with the roar of fighter jets. It's a monster tune airing frustrations of censorship and governmental repression, on which Rusko plays ring master to a deployment of noises that more resemble sonic warfare than dubstep, sounds slithering around like vicious, scanning weapons. Another huge production is her thrashy digital mosher Born Free, bewitchingly accompanied with a nine-minute video depicting redheads being rounded up by armed forces and exterminated. It’s a thinly veiled allegory highlighting the bloody period of conflict between the Tamil population of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese majority, which M.I.A. has done much to highlight.
But there are lighter moments, where subtlety reigns. Teqkilla is an enjoyably demented but utterly catchy drinking song peppered with infectious choral nonsense. Equally, It Takes a Muscle is a slice of sunshine dancehall that could easily find itself aired at a Grammys ceremony (as Paper Planes was when it appeared on the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire). And then there's album closer Space, a spurt of astral dub-pop that eulogises isolation in an industry that increasingly impinges her personal freedom. The subtext is abundant, but the songs still stand up alone.
Akin to albums by the similarly avant-garde artist Björk, each track on /\/\/\Y/\, no matter how different, is unmistakably the work of M.I.A. The leap in her ability, to realise such a distinct vision, is complete. /\/\/\Y/\ is at points a terrifying achievement but, much like life in general, it has so much to offer an inquisitive and open mind – it simply depends whether or not you're bothered enough to scratch beyond the surface and dive in.