This is how my friend summed up her love hate relationship with the force of nature that is MIA, and I know a lot of people who agree with this sentiment. In reviewing her latest offering I wanted to put aside her persona and just talk about the music, but her latest album is such a personal affair; it’s named after her for starters, that it’s difficult to separate the musician from the music. Everything that Mathangi Arulpragasam creates and says seems to be a controversial statement. Even the artwork for Maya is in your face, it feels as though MIA is incapable of subtlety and understatement. But you have to ask why her crazy theories and controversial statements are so obnoxious to many? She causes fuss and controversy wherever she goes, but the reason MIA is still so well respected is that she is one of the most interesting and talented musicians working at the moment.
What makes Maya such a fascinating and enjoyable album is how dirty and noisy it is, and how it takes elements from MIA’s earlier albums and develops them into something new. You can see real progression, and some new influences coming together to evoke a big sweaty nightclub in Rio de Janeiro in which you can dance to the dub and reggae influences until exhaustion. The sounds are often distorted, synthetic and heavy, giving an energy to the album I find irresistible. Whilst most of the tracks may not have the immediate commercial appeal of Paper Planes, I have no doubt that Maya will only improve with further listens.
Beginning with The Message, the album opens in an unsurprisingly controversial manner. Despite being less than a minute long, it opens up a whole load of controversial ideas that will play out for the duration. “Google is connected to the government” reveals that although MIA has been reading one too many conspiracy theories, this is the statement of the album, which quickly moves into Steppin’ Up with its use of industrial sounds and lyrical dexterity that evokes earlier works “Rub ba dub dub” It shows a great confidence, with constant references to her name “MIA you know who I am” and claiming to ‘run the club’. The next track, XXXO, however is a surprise. More conventional and a bit softer in sound, though the lyrics are predictably confrontational, XXXO is a song the producers of Gossip Girl would crawl over their dying grandmothers to be able to use on their show. Yet, it is by no means a weak track. It improves with every listen and helps to show multiple sides of MIA.
The album progresses in an uncompromising fashion. The scale is bigger on tracks such as Tell Me Why which employs an African choir as backing, and the controversy surrounding the Born Free video does not detract from its raw power and energy. The personal feel continues throughout with lyrics such as “I fight the ones that fight me” in Lovalot and “All I ever wanted was my story to be told” in Story Be Told. This, mixed with a truly innovative approach to the music, creates an album that never lets up. It is uncompromising, controversial and hugely individual.
MIA will always be a fascinating, crazy contradiction of an artist. She is at once anti-establishment yet she has a huge and sometimes mainstream following. She riles against injustice but lives a comfortable existence. She claims the evils of the internet and new technology with her claims about iPhones and Google, yet she releases her tracks early on myspace. But you know what? I don’t care. I love that she talks rubbish and has a fierce opinion. She’s a bloody great musician and this is a bloody great album. It’ll go down as one of the most exciting and innovative of the year. My advice? Even if you think she’s a knob, listen to it, she makes some damn good tunes.
Words: Alexia Smith
Listen: MIA – /\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\