M.I.A.: Maya

RIYL: Missy Elliott, Rihanna, steaming hot messes

I guess you have to hand it to Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam for not taking the sound of her breakthrough pop hit “Paper Planes” and repeating it 12 times over the course of her new album (which we are calling Maya from here on out, because trying to type those symbols out is annoying as hell). Although “Planes” wasn’t the most obvious candidate for pop ubiquity, it was certainly one of M.I.A.’s more accessible tunes, buoyed by a chanted kids’ chorus (offset by gunfire as it was) and a Clash sample. Unfortunately, 12 slight variations on “Paper Planes” might have actually been an improvement over what we wind up with on the Sri Lankan-born Brit’s just-released third effort. Maya is a fairly dissonant, disjointed affair on which M.I.A. practically plays a secondary role to the production.

M.I.A’s signature sound-featuring elements from various kinds of world music, as well as some more traditional electronic sub-genres, gets a slight makeover here. Tracks like “Born Free” (of controversial “video featuring redheads getting slaughtered” fame) and “Meds & Feds” have a more abrasive, rock-oriented sound. Taking the opposite tack, closing number “Space” has a more ethereal feel. Chalk this expansion up to M.I.A. working outside of her usual producers Diplo and Switch for a few songs and expanding her musical palette. However, the points she gains for opening her sound up are quickly squandered when you realize how crappy the songs are.

Most artists who tackle sociopolitical themes in their music have voices powerful enough to get the points they’re trying to make across. On Maya, M.I.A.’s vocals are buried under the production, and while the music is certainly chaotic and abrasive, her lyrical message (whatever it is) is completely obscured. Profundity has never been M.I.A.’s strong point, but too many songs on this album seem to consist of random chanting. Strangely, the album’s most affecting (or at least most listenable) songs are the ones where she seems to be gunning for Top 40 radio. Tracks like the reggae-scented “It Takes a Muscle” and the abrasive but melodic “Tell Me Why” could very easily compete on the charts with songs by Rihanna, the performer M.I.A. sounds most comparable to when singing instead of rapping.

If you loved “Paper Planes” and you’re expecting an album of copycat songs, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re a fan of M.I.A.’s politics and you’re looking for some Public Enemy-style rabble rousing, you’ll be disappointed. While it’s great that M.I.A. looked superstardom in the eye and didn’t sell out, the least she could have done in the wake of her success was make a good album. “Maya” ultimately turns out to be as messy as trying to type out the symbols that spell out her name on the album cover. (XL/Interscope Records 2010)

M.I.A. MySpace page


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