M.I.A. Finds Herself In ‘Maya’
M.I.A. -- "Maya" (N.E.E.T)
This summer, as the media circus around Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., intensified, the new album from this extraordinary, genre- and border-traversing pop artist was somewhat swept under the rug. M.I.A. is hardly the first pop star to incur criticism for an unconventional political position, but in May the backlash against her reached new heights when the New York Times Magazine ran a profile whose gratuitous cattiness was worthy of “Gossip Girl.” But as the ultimately trivial controversy around M.I.A. fades from memory, “Maya,” her third album, will finally attract the attention and repeated listens it deserves.
On its release in 2007, M.I.A.’s masterpiece “Kala” was initially regarded as dense and impenetrable by comparison to her frenetically catchy debut, 2005’s “Arular.” Yet “Maya” makes “Kala” sound like a hookfest. In a move that would seem bizarre coming from any other artist, M.I.A. saves the uptempo, electric songs of the kind that made her reputation for the four bonus tracks. The initial twelve tracks, on the other hand, are leisurely, meandering and, in the album’s most notable stylistic departure from form, privilege M.I.A. the singer rather than M.I.A. the rapper.
M.I.A. herself would hardly claim technical dexterity, range, or accuracy for her singing voice. However, as it is the case with Bob Dylan and Stephen Malkmus, where she lacks in conventional gifts, she makes up for in skill and delivery, conscious of the best way to put forward her material. At 16 songs including the four bonus tracks, “Maya” is considerably longer than either of her previous albums. Perhaps stretched too thin, a few of the songs emerge as trifling or indulgent, and do not sustain the close reading and listening that is necessary to truly appreciate an M.I.A. record. The offending tracks are, most obviously, “Meds and Feds,” empty bluster of the sort one might expect from an M.I.A. imitator with none of her substance, and “It Iz What it Iz,” frankly disgraceful in its lazy banality.
Her experimentation with new style, however, pays off elsewhere in the album, results ranging from merely pleasant (“Space,” “Tell Me Why”) to enjoyable if slight (“XXXO,” “Lovalot”), to tracks that are more than worthy of her best work, such as the propulsive, irresistible cover of a Dutch obscurity, “It Takes a Muscle,” that ought to settle any doubts about her musical skill, and “Born Free,” the best piece of pure rap on the album.
This is all very well, but before the bonus tracks, the album is undeniably a significant disappointment from the artist who only three years ago gave us album-of-the-decade candidate “Kala.” “Maya” is elevated by these bonus tracks, which channel all the virtues of “Arular” and “Kala”—undeniable hooks and beats coupled with random noise and lyrics that pack meaning into short songs—without merely repeating a hackneyed formula. The finest thing on the album is the punk-techno-rap “Illygirl,” a track narrated by a 16-year old version of M.I.A., who namedrops “Billie Jean,” “Palestine,” “Mujahideen” and “Martin Luther King,” besides overwhelming the listener with its aural attack. “Maya” may not be another “Kala” or “Arular,” but it emerges as an intense and rewarding album in its own right.
In the long run, pop musicians are thankfully remembered in the first instance for their music—who today recalls that in the 1970s David Bowie and Eric Clapton were subjects of conterversy involving white supremacy? But even if “Maya” escapes references to her politics and personal life, it may forever be doomed to comparison to the rest of M.I.A.’s oeuvre. Even her most ardent admirers would be hard-pressed to deny that on the evidence, this is her worst album. But if this is her worst, surely that solidifies her standing as a contender for the title of world’s greatest pop artist.
—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at email@example.com.