If there’s one thing you can expect from Ms Arulpragasam, it’s the unexpected. /\/\/\Y/\, translating as Maya, is her third album just released on July 13, and it serves as case in point. Given the success of pop-hooks like ‘Paper Planes’ on her previous albums, it would be easy for M.I.A’s new album to cruise on this digestible style. Instead, in her typically iconoclastic way, she gives us an album which is best described as, well, schizophrenic. She’s experimented with an array of disparate new styles, with the varied tracks thrown together in a jarring, chaotic ensemble. A couple of tracks are hard-and-fast techno, a couple are reggae-esque, and there’s even a psychedelic track. Oh and that’s forgetting the metal-techno track, a sonic fusion as dysfunctional as it sounds. Daring? Sure. But does it work?
At first listen, the jumbled whirlwind of grating sounds is so overwhelming that you’re inclined to think no. But once the mild shell-shock wears off, you realise that the experimental sounds are, in fact, quite fantastic. This is not easy listening, that’s for sure. But that’s the point. As the feisty queen of politicised lyrics, pushing listeners out of their comfort zone is the name of M.I.A’s game. Her lyrics are once again loaded, this time discussing information politics. The first track ‘The Message’ introduces the theme: at fifty-eight seconds, it serves as a foreword to the following tracks. “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.” In ‘XXXO’, she describes how “you’re tweeting me like tweety bird on your iphones”.
This distrust of technology is a coherent message, but one that seems slightly ironic given she’s the poster-girl for internet success. M.I.A shot to sudden fame in 2004 after her self-recorded tracks were circulated through file-sharing. As more and more people picked up her tracks, M.I.A won a record deal with XL Recordings, despite not having set foot on stage yet. She worked the system to its full potential. But if anyone’s got the balls to bite the hand that feeds them, it’s M.I.A.
Those balls are sure evident in ‘Born Free’, the first single released, whose Romain Gavras directed video-clip has attracted enormous controversy. Banned by Youtube, it features nudity, gratuitous violence and a narrative where red-haired teens are rounded up in a van, driven to the country, then made to run through a minefield, or, more compassionately, just shot. M.I.A wants us confronted by the sheer horror of violence. She wants to put genocide, through this allegory, at the front of our minds, for it was the reality she grew up amongst in war-torn Sri Lanka. The song starts with beats that sound identical to the stream of a machine gun. It hurls forward, driven by a manic techno beat so imposing and rapid that it makes the stomach churn.
The next two releases, ‘XXXO’ and ‘Steppin’ Up’ are more palatable – melodic, even. In ‘XXXO’, as with ‘Space’ and a couple more tracks, M.I.A sings instead of rapping. She defiantly repeats “You want me be somebody that I’m really not” to a catchy chorus riff – ‘XXXO’ is the track most likely to become a club favourite. ‘Steppin’ Up’ is likewise catchy: more dancey, less grating and discordant. Although it does start with what sounds like a hand drill. ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘It Takes a Muscle’ are also relatively easy listening, with a distinctly reggae style. ‘Space’ is the psychedelic moment, strung-out and dreamy. ‘Teqkilla’ is a great track, with wailing synthetic tones giving it a strangely jungle feel.
But with these easier tracks come the unpolished, jarring ones – the sonic riots. ‘Meds and Feds’ lays a scraping metal sound over a hyperactive techno beat. While this sounds like an impossible fusion of genres, it somehow works. ‘Lovalot’ interprets quite literally M.I.A’s concept of the album as schizophrenic. The soundbite “I fight the ones that fight me” is the chorus, and the music literally fights itself. This melodic soundbite is at war with a different chaotic riff. They’re in battle: overlapping and truncating each other, each aiming to drown out the other. The rest of the lyrics are anarchistic too, – “You say this is a free country? Tonight it feels more like a chicken factory.”
Each track is challenging in its own way, each pushes the envelope. But this is what makes the album so dynamic. The ever-contentious M.I.A may suffer a load of criticism, but nobody’s ever managed to call her one dimensional. Maya shows her evolve once again. It’s eclectic, disorienting and frequently taxing. But even more frequently, it’s oddly addictive.