Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasm is a fine example of a modern woman. She’s creative, smart, strong and lives her live with purpose, using her celebrity to shed light on issues – honest, even when it’s against her best interest. To look at her life – and not just the tours with Elastica or the time she turned down an opportunity to be director John Singleton’s protégé – is to drop jaw.
When you consider everything she’s already experienced and the history of her family, it’s no surprise that M.I.A. is not just a creative force, but a hero to people from all walks of life. Punks. Sri Lankan teens. American teens. Feminists. Hip-hop fans. College kids. Hipsters. Fashionistas. And, maybe most importantly, anyone who feels down in the dumps about government hypocrisy and, well, anyone who works against what Maya calls “the good.” Her third album, while strange and cluttered, will keep her young legacy moving, flaws and all.
Forget Lady Gaga. For an artist to be so creative, unique and radical and still releasing hit songs is unheard of. Not Madonna, not Gaga – no one comes off as authentic in the eye of the masses right now as M.I.A. No one that I can think of in the history of pop music has been as confrontational as N.W.A., as musically diverse and unique as Bjork, as strong willed as Public Enemy, as passionate about revolution and justice as The Clash and as charismatic as Jay-Z or Kayne West. And here, on her third record, Maya, our heroine is trying as hard as ever to make art.
The expectations resulting from the late bloomer hit from her last album, “Paper Planes,” added pressure to deliver, sure. So did having her first child. That Maya didn’t set out to make an easy, accessible record in the spirit of “Planes” is why she matters so much. And that she took her already extreme sound even further down the pipe, towards the dark pit of high art, is downright loveable. Maya plays through just like the cover looks – a jumbled, in-your-face piece of modern art that’s fascinated with both politics and pop culture.
Wait, did I just type “politics and pop culture.” Hmm. Sounds fishy. Again, only M.I.A. (and, to a degree, The Clash) have really pulled this off. No one makes music that sounds like this; it’s at once mean, gritty, modern, dangerous and dance-ready. You can boogie and drink to these songs or you can boil blood and find a cause. The arrangements, composed and programmed by M.I.A. and a crew of 10 or so producers (mostly Diplo, Rusko and Blaqstar), are loopy yet complex, often taking center stage as Maya (more so a Master of Ceremony than proper emcee) does her thing – talking smack, telling jokes and spitting facts. Imagine a smallish girl leading a mixed-bag-heard of pseudo-Sandinistas and rabid bulls through a downtown dancehall and you might have an idea of what Maya sounds like.
So then, how about the lyrics and themes – two things always important on M.I.A. records. Here Maya is concerned with the relationship of mass communication and political happenings, her two major themes being the Internet and information politics. For starters, Maya doesn’t like that Google has become the most prominent information gathering source in America. Google, as we know, is money- and ad-driven. I’ll say no more, for fear of taking the fun out of exploring the album’s core.
Is Maya just another slight update on M.I.A.’s unique sound, as her second record, Kala, was? Actually, no. The lyrics are more scatterbrained and radical and the music feels far more labored over. Also, Maya chooses to sing instead of rap on about half the record, which takes some getting used to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Call it a transitional record if you must, but this is, as far as pop music goes, a must-hear record. It’s not Maya’s best work, but that doesn’t matter. It’s interesting and, most importantly, a grand-scale record that’s unique and hot blooded in way that grand-scale records aren’t these days.