MIA - Maya - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

MIA - Maya

by Rich Morris Rating:5 Release Date:2010-07-13

It's often said that politics and music make uncomfortable bedfellows. As much as songwriters like Radiohead's Thom York or Richey James from The Manic Street Preachers may strive to explore complex political narratives within rock's idiom, music's most successful political statements are always big and bold, often using flagrant emotion to grab people's attention and keep it. Because of this, people frequently relate such songs to whatever struggles they face in their own lives. The current king of this type of song is, of course, 'Killing in the Name' by Rage Against the Machine. Although the 1992 song was written as a reaction to racism in US security agencies, it's "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" refrain was multi-purpose enough for the song to be used as the centrepiece of last year's successful campaign to keep X Factor winner Joe McElderry from the top of the UK Christmas singles chart.

Whether you view that little pop culture revolution as a wonderful moment of consumer rebellion or something more confused will probably work as a good indicator for how much truck you'll have with the politically-charged sentiments that litter MIA's third album, Maya. No other songwriter today subscribes so totally to the 'personal is political' truism as Maya Arulpragasam. In fact, not since John Lennon's 'Power to the People' has anyone so relentlessly reduced the complexities of world politics to a series of incomprehensibly deployed buzzwords and meaningless 'I'm a rebel, me' style sloganeering.

Take, for example, 'Born Free', the ninth track on Maya, which gained much exposure and web chatter thanks to its controversial video depicting ginger-haired people being hunted and murdered in graphic detail by a cartel of fascist soldiers. Many speculated the video's scenes of human rights abuses were a comment on the political situation Arulpragasam grew up surrounded by in Sri Lanka. But listen to the lyrics and it's hard to spot to social commentary in lines like "I don't want to talk about money/ 'cos i got it". "I'll throw this shit in your face when I see ya/ 'cos I got something to say," she spits before the chorus. However, as is usually the case when MIA attempts a spot of political commentary - which is often - you end the song no wiser as to precisely what point she's actually trying to make.

The situation is repeated on another Maya track, 'Lovealot', a song apparently inspired in Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, a teenage girl who blew herself up as part of the terrorist attack on the Moscow underground earlier this year. While it's laudable that MIA, as someone whose early life was irrevocably affected by terrorism, should tackle a subject like this, the song's barely-sensical lyrics cannot help but make you wince: "Like a Taliban trucker eatin' boiled-up yucca/ Get my eyes done like I'm in the burka." Sorry, but what does this garbled crap mean? From a woman who once proclaimed, "I am politics", it's nothing sort of tragic.

MIA's lack of lyrical prowess is only part of the story, however, and probably not an especially important one in light of the most powerful weapon in her arsenal: her sonic inventiveness. As a music-maker and producer, she has fearlessly incorporated myriad sounds into her patchwork of hip hop and squelchy electro. From reggaeton to dancehall, bhangra to disco, she's repeatedly shown a peerless capacity to adapt and assimilate. Maya continues to push this forward. This time MIA (along with producers Blaqstarr, Diplo, Rusko, and Switch) incorporates harsh industrial noises and thrashing metal guitar into the mix. Second track 'Steppin Up' is a loping hip hop track build around the sound of whirring drills, over which MIA imperiously declares "You know who I am/ I run this fucking club." A grungey guitar riff emerges to propel things forward. In general, Maya comes with a harder sonic palette than its predecessors. 'Meds and Feds' is all fuzzy power chords, thunderclap beats and cut-up vocals. The aforementioned 'Born Free', meanwhile, takes as its base the churning organ rumble of Suicide's classic 'Ghost Rider', although this track proves to be the one moment on Maya where neither MIA or her cohorts can think of somewhere interesting to take their aggressive sounds. 'Born Free', robbed of its accompanying visceral visuals, feels very slight next to claustrophobic noir of 'Ghost Rider'.

However, while Maya certainly holds its own against the sonic invention of second album, Kala, it's often a colder, more emotionally distant listen. Third track 'Teqkilla' (dreadful title), has the same 'global village' sound as much of Kala, but this time the net product is dirgey, over-long, bombastic and empty, with MIA sounding disengaged as she repeatedly mutters the line "Down the drain". Thematically, this album seems to take a different stance to globalisation than Kala. Whereas that album knitted together the sounds of different cultures to create an intriguing, cross-pollinated whole, Maya opens with a brief snatch of juddering noise called 'The Message', a reinterpretation of on the spiritual 'Dry Bones' which takes a pot-shot at Google for collecting information on web users which can be used by the government. It's actually an unusually lucid statement for MIA to make and, together with 'Born Free', 'Meds and Feds' and 'Lovealot', reinforces the paranoia which MIA has been nursing since she rapped on first single 'Galang': "Who the hell is hunting you?/ In the BMW/ How the hell they find you?/ 1 4 7'd you/ Feds gonna get you."

Once again, though, this only half the story. There's been lots of chatter about how Maya will alienate casual fans, but anyone thinking this should remember that this is an artist who has recently collaborated with world-conquering diva Christina Aguilera. If there's one thing the world has learnt about MIA since the phenomenal success of Kala single 'Paper Planes', it's that success isn't something she has a problem with. So the r'n'b gloss of 'XXXO' is no real surprise, although the fact that it's possibly the album's most boring, phoned-in moment is. There's also the more sensitive feel of closing tracks 'Tell Me Why' and 'Space'. The former is a gospel-tinged ballad which sounds like MIA's attempt at an 'Everybody Hurts' moment. It's strident and horribly misjudged. Again, facile lyrics like "I've got a speedboat", delivered in her chirpy chipmunk voice, make you wonder if MIA's having a big joke that we're all not in on. The latter is sweet and fragile and drops the grating rebel poses MIA strikes for much of the album.

Overall, Maya is confusing, sometimes irritating but mostly compelling. It feels likely that this album will retrospectively mark the close of phase one of MIA's career. It's messier and less coherent than anything else she's done. It's also likely that more will be written about the controversial subjects it touches on than the music it contains. MIA has a knack for controversy which hasn't deserted her as her public profile has grown (see the recent 'truffle fried chips' furore caused by the Lynn Hirschberg interview). You suspect, whatever protestations she may make, this suits the artist just fine right now. Maya makes it plain that MIA isn't quite the rebellious, firebrand figure many would like to believe she is. It does, however, give you hope she may yet move beyond such a jejune pose to something more consistently engaging.

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