Last week, M.I.A. kicked off her latest tour with a little help from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who Skyped in from the Ecuadorian embassy in London (his home in exile for the last 16 months) to inform a sold-out crowd at New York’s Terminal 5 that he’s a fan. “I have become a fan of M.I.A.,” Assange explained, “because I think she is the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception.” Flipping the bird at the Superbowl half-show with a shrug, spouting caustic clairvoyance of a Google “connected to the government,” flashing her contradictions like jewelry (oh, these truffle fries?), Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam certainly isn’t boring. And while critics are quick to dismiss her controversies as run-of-the-mill ploys for attention (and sales), dressed up in pretentious aesthetic exceptionalism, I’m pretty sure she’s the one who’s got us figured out. She’s been mapping our collective, post-internet rat brain for over a decade now, rebuilding it with a globally-inspired bricolage that knows no equal. It takes more courage to peer into that chasm, I think, than it does to fire off any angry tweets to Anderson Cooper.
M.I.A.’s had plenty of time to stare in the time since her last album, 2010’s messy Maya — and not by her decision. Originally slated for release last December, Matangi didn’t sit well with the rapper’s label, Interscope; in the wake of the image-warping Super Bowl incident, execs expressed concern that the songs sounded “too positive.” Had M.I.A. not threatened to leak the album herself, we may not have even gotten around to hearing it in the first place.
It only follows, then, that album number four isn’t the most current installment in her discography. We get KONY 2012 and #YOLO references, three-year-old singles (not to worry — “Bad Girls” still bangs like it did in 2010), Occupy-style rally cries. But revisited through the lens of her post-internet postmodernism, old news takes on a new meaning. On lead single “Bring the Noize,” for example, popular political musings from 2011 infiltrate the gaudy neon spaces of a late-90s rave, constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of the teeth-chattering beats. “Y.A.L.A.” takes a more mosaiced approach to its mockery of millennial theology, weaving together Drake, Julianne Moore, FIFA, and Fidel Castro: “If you only we live once,” she deadpans on the outro, “why we keep doing the same shit?”
Taking inspiration (titular and otherwise) from Matangi, the Hindu goddess of music, speech, and art, M.I.A. frequently shifts her focus to toying with the limber paradigms of her craft. The twitchy “aTENTion” involved input from Assange himself, who, the story goes, took her computer, decrypted the internet, and downloaded every word in the English language that had the word “tent” in it; think of it as a danceable, quasi-meta rap exercise, clunkers included (“There’s 36 chambers in my Wu TENT”). “Only 1 U,” “Warriors,” and “MATANGI” revisit the mercurial, percussively rich soundscapes of the rapper’s first two albums, infusing them with biting, tinnitus-inducing electronics.
Although some sonic vestiges from the Diplo era remain tangible — trunk-rattling mixes, splotches of international grime — there’s an almost paradoxical set of strivings pulsing through the record. On one hand, Matangi’s got marquee festival fare like “Bad Girls” and “Double Bubble Trouble,” a dancehall freak-out that’d be right at home on the soundtrack to Spring Breakers 2. At the same time, the album’s penchant for abrupt, abrasive divergences threatens Death Grips-style, as if Matangi actively desires to eat its own tail and vanish, leaving us all befuddled. “Come Walk With Me,” for example, kidnaps the lilting refrain of a sunny girl-group and forces it to reside alongside a bevy of pulverizing drum beats. Trapped in a new, riled-up context, the chorus’ detachment becomes its most distinguishing factor, and hearing it strain against the frenzied backdrop is one of the most unnerving experiences in pop I’ve had all year.
Poppy but pugnacious, familiar and yet dizzyingly foreign, Matangi is a contrarian work from an artist who lavishes us with liminality, with contradictions. If not for its tendency to slip into stale revisitations à la The Newsroom and a ghastly pair of bedroom R&B ballads created in conjunction with The Weeknd (“Exodus,” and its unfortunately-named companion, “Sexodus”), it might take a seat at the head of the table with Kala. For now, it’ll have to make do as being the self-described “Paul Simon on acid” we could all stand to visit.