Why have a Tea Party when you can serve Molotov cocktails?
The aggressive, paranoid electro-funk of M.I.A.'s mostly excellent third album has been variously slated as noisy, self-involved, incoherent, hypocritical, shallow, and irresponsible. All of which are fair comments up to a point. And all of which seem to miss that that is exactly what 2010 feels like to anyone paying attention. In a year when angry old white Americans full of conspiracy theories and vague threats of armed insurrection are treated like serious political voices, M.I.A. (née Maya Arulpragasam) fires a fusillade from the other side: She's young, brown, Third World, female, and not afraid to flirt with taboos. (One song, "Lovalot," includes an ambiguous nod to one of the Muslim Black Widow bombers who killed 40 people on Moscow trains in March.)
Even more than her (also mostly excellent) first two albums, Maya reflects a vision of global dystopia, a world where everything is wired but power flows in only one direction, from the top down. A brief, alarmist prologue, "The Message," lays out a recurring theme, the idea of connection itself as something inherently sinister: "Headbone connected to the headphones/Headphones connected to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the Internet connected to the Google connected to the government." This isn't just part of some libertarian or anti-corporate manifesto. In the dangerous landscape of Maya, even personal relationships are all about command and control. "XXXO," one of a handful of actual would-be pop tunes on the album, sounds sweet and sexy enough until the repeated, coy come-on of "You want me" is revealed in full: "You want me be somebody who I'm really not." It's as if she was anticipating the recent nasty profile of her in The New York Times Magazine, which detailed her Hollywood lunch orders while almost entirely ignoring her music. It's no wonder that the trippy album-closer, "Space," finds her drifting deliberately out of reach: "My lines are down/You can't call me." She knows there are good reasons to go off the grid.
But lyrics only tell you so much about an M.I.A. album. She has always been as much a sonic artist as a verbal one, enlisting producers in tune with her clanking, banging aesthetic to fashion an evolving hybrid of hip-hop, global pop, dancehall, dub, and whatever else wanders across her radar. Her collaborators this time include her old boyfriend Diplo, British dubstep producer Rusko, and Baltimore DJ Blaqstarr. The more bracing tracks on Maya amp up the belligerence that's always been part of her music (even her biggest hit, the Clash-sampling "Paper Planes," had a gun-cock right in the middle of its sing-song chorus). The first single, "Born Free," is built on the buzzing riff from Suicide's electro-punk classic "Ghost Rider," and the album is marked by eruptions of industrial noise and chaos. "Steppin Up" opens with what could be either a chainsaw or a pneumatic drill, accented by what sounds like a missile falling to earth, and it doesn't get any friendlier from there. And the mindbending six-plus minutes of "Teqkilla" is a mad amalgam of claps and rattles and squeals—it's like R&B for malfunctioning droids.
The breathless pounding of those songs tends to overwhelm the gentler tracks, at least on first go-round. It took me a few spins to even notice the woozy melody of "Story to Be Told" or appreciate the lulling synths of "It Iz What It Iz." But the contrast between harsh edges and pillowy swells gives the album an off-kilter wobble that is well suited to its overriding sense of anxiety. Nothing really flows on Maya—it rushes forward, loops back, races off in a different direction, and sometimes just flails around drunkenly. It's a sort of maddening album for a sort of maddening time. I think I love it.