Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: M.I.A.- / \ / \ / \ Y / \

Rating: 6.0
Released: July 13, 2010

Get the newspaper print out of your ears.

That's my advice to all of the critics lambasting hip hop chameleon M.I.A.'s latest album. Arriving on a sour wave of ill will ignited by a recent New York Times profile and her subsequent response, M.I.A.'s latest (that's really the title - her first name, Maya, in annoying computer characters) is not the triumph we expected.

Nor is it the Waterloo described by overly-cynical critics with an inability to decipher between bad publicity and good music, or vice-versa.

It's simply the work of an artist, who perhaps unwisely, really wants to follow Elvis Costello's example and bite the hand that's feeding her. Never mind that Costello was still writing pop songs at the time. M.I.A. certainly isn't, not unless you like your club beats to sound like automatic gunfire and chainsaws.

M.I.A.'s headache of an album is chock-full of glitchy filler and repetitive, overly-simplistic semi-songs. But for every two duds, there's always a reminder that this is the same artist behind zeitgeist albums Arular and Kala.

Those albums were mostly a form of hip hop, one of the most American of music forms, refracted through the foreign lenses of a Sri Lankan-born Londoner with a taste for multi-cultural rhythms.

No, she can't really sing. No, she can't really rap, her meager vocabulary doesn't provide the means.

But yes, there are hooks. Look to the world-beating pop of mega-hit "Paper Planes" for proof that subversive and often-alienating artists can sometimes strike gold.

And yes, her grooves are as fascinating and brilliant as we've heard from any mastermind producer. Kala tracks like "Boyz" and "Bird Flu" are mad dashes for the finish line, complete with distorted vocals, infectious beats and enough chaos to keep you on your toes.

The Sri Lankan rapper and purveyor of all things incendiary looks and sounds like the future of music, but there remains the distinct scent of the past too. M.I.A. retains all of the firebombing wit and charisma of hip hop activists Public Enemy and proto-punks The Clash.

If Arular was her version of The Clash's self-titled lightning-rod of a debut, Kala was her London Calling, proof that she could make any style or form of music fit her gutter rat world view.

It follows then that /\/\ /\ Y /\ would be her Sandinista, a globe-trotting, noisy, ambitious, overly long and frustrating affair.

Tracks like "XXXO" and "Teqkilla" would be club anthems in that seedy dive that most people avoid.

"Lovalot" is a sterile banger where M.I.A. is bold enough to take the point of view of an extremist.

"I really love a lot," she chants in her trademark monotone. "But I fight the ones who fight me."

"Born Free" is every bit as explosive as the title suggests, a thrash-anthem that finds her back in the shoes of a rebel. This is the pop singer who defends bloody militant groups like her father's own Tamil Tigers in war-torn Sri Lanka.

"Yeah, I don't wanna live for tomorrow, I push my life today," she sings behind a megaphone. "I throw this in your face when I see you, I got something to say."

The song never explains what it is she has to say, but it's clear that she'll punch your teeth out if you try to stop her from saying it.

Only in a modern age where the music industry leaks and creaks like a foundering ship could an artist this directly confrontational succeed. Back when boy bands ruled the landscape, we would never have known M.I.A.'s name, or known about the aforementioned Tigers and the atrocities of Sri Lanka's civil war. If that's the case, thank goodness we sprung a leak.


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