As if timed precisely to capitalize on the controversy generated by Lynn Hirschberg’s widely-blogged NYT hatchet piece, sounding the warning shot in an inevitable critical backlash, M.I.A.’s third full-length album arrives with plenty of baggage in tow. For better or worse, Maya Arulpragasam’s work as M.I.A. seems destined for critical scrutiny of a very specific sort. Because of her willful and calculated aestheticization of the subaltern — third-world poverty, radical politics, terrorism, and guerilla warfare — her critics have consistently sought to derive a coherent politics from M.I.A.’s postmodern dance pop. Whereas Lady Gaga and Ke$ha skate by on a presumption that their brand of pop is always already a calculated, commodified product, it seems an irresistible temptation for M.I.A.’s critics to poke at her collection of stylistic gestures searching for an ethics. Failing that, they have been satisfied with highlighting the artist’s supposed hypocrisies, retracing tired classist arguments that assume some fundamental incompatibility between wealth and radicalism. Into this highly fraught public dialogue, M.I.A. has launched what is essentially her most subdued, least radically-pitched album yet, a puzzling collection of magpie-ish pop hybrids and abortive experiments seemingly formulated to frustrate the unfolding critical discourse that threatens to damn her.
For /\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A. takes a purposeful step back from the tactics of Arular and Kala, which merged dancehall toasts repping “third-world democracy” with abrasive forgeries of global dance subgenres like baile funk and bhangra. The defiant M.I.A., who once claimed that “like P.L.O. [she] don’t surrender,” is largely absent here, replaced by a more ambiguous voice equally at home narrating a haunting story of terrorist love (“Lovalot”) or delivering a schmaltzy cover of a reggae-flavored song by 80s Dutch synth pop act Spectral Display (“It Takes A Muscle”). Introducing the loose conceptual framework of the album, opening track “The Message” emphasizes the hyper-stimulation and over-connectedness of post-smartphone reality in a particularly clumsy, ham-fisted way: “Head bone connected to the headphones/ Headphones connected to the iPhone/ iPhone connected to the internet/ Connected to the Google/ Connected to the government.” It won’t be the last time on the album that M.I.A.’s lyrics take a turn for the painfully obvious. Like the Roman Gavras video clip for “Born Free,” /\/\ /\ Y /\ often verges on lurid didacticism, on telling rather than showing. If this album is intended as a rejoinder to her critics, it makes the fatal mistake of over-correction.
M.I.A. has never shied away from noise, often recruiting aggravation and distortion as aesthetic weapons, but she’s never done it quite so literally as on “Steppin’ Up,” which creates the architecture of a beat from the noise of belt sanders, drill presses, and chugging metal guitars. Co-produced with Rusko, it’s hard to tell whether the track is meant as a conscious homage to Skinny Puppy and Neubauten, or Mercer and Arulpragasam meant this collection of aggro-industrial clichés to sound vital and new. The album also falters in its conviction that adding a live drum track to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” with M.I.A. doing her best Alan Vega impression, will achieve results that are novel or revelatory. The affectless cover of Spectral Display, one of the two Diplo-produced tracks on the album, is similarly dead on arrival. Listening to these tracks, as well as the blatant appeal for a Lady Gaga-style top 40 crossover that is “XXXO,” it becomes tempting to confirm the Hirschberg thesis that M.I.A.’s pop is devoid of meaningful content, attempting to mask its own vacuity by trading on the readymades of authenticity inherent in Arulpragasam’s personal biography.
The album’s overarching conceptual conceit seems to fall apart by design, leaving behind a fragmented collection of false starts and undercooked themes. “Teqkilla” is one of only a few tracks on the album that sounds like a natural evolution of M.I.A.’s sound: a dense, teeming production combining layers of downsampled Kaossilator, handclaps, and textured samples. At its center is M.I.A.’s heavily processed, multitracked chant about getting crunk, a “Paper Planes”-style singalong that never quite takes off. It’s not bad, but it’s hard to see how this relates to the theme of connectivity and affect in the information age. The incongruously fun and catchy “Story To Be Told” takes a page from the current bloghouse/dubstep playbook, becoming the album’s club banger largely by default. “It Iz What It Iz” marries the M.I.A. sound to the lo-fi hypnagogic pop of folks like Nite Jewel and Dam-Funk, another interesting bit of style tourism that fails to make much of an impression. “Meds and Feds” features Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, who subjects his own track “Treats” to the slice-and-sample treatment. It’s fun but insubstantial, largely due to what seems like a phoned-in vocal from M.I.A. herself.
The theme of a jacked-in Wi-Fi culture seems paradoxically to emerge from the album’s myriad aesthetic failures and brief glimmers of brilliance, underlining the messthetics of SoundCloud and RapidShare, in which amateurs are invited to download, sample, mix, remix, and share their results for further sampling and re-sharing. There are several tracks on the album that have made it to the mastering stage in such an undercooked, compressed, and slapdash form that it cannot help but seem to be a deliberate strategy. Even the album’s strongest tracks — “Lovalot” and “Tell Me Why” — contain elements that don’t quite gel. The former’s chilling and tragic evocation of the widely published photo of Russian/Islamic terrorist couple Abdurakhmanova and Magomedo is nearly derailed by its insipid opening line: “They told me this is a free country/ But now it feels like a chicken factory.” The latter, and by far the best of the two Diplo-produced tracks, samples Sacred Harp singing to create a harmonic, textured backdrop for a poorly executed, overproduced lead vocal by Arulpragasam. It’s hard to read the lackluster vocals and simplistic lyrics that persist throughout /\/\ /\ Y /\ as anything other than a defensive posture, a way of manipulating the public discourse away from politics, back toward aesthetics.
However, /\/\ /\ Y /\’s many false starts and dead ends also place M.I.A. on shaky ground aesthetically, and with no coherent message to fall back on, the album feels alienated and disconnected, perhaps ironic for an album attempting to evoke the hyper-connectedness and sensory overload of culture in the wake of iPhone and Google. A lot of the criticisms of M.I.A. have focused on her lack of a coherent politics, the questionable ethics of her aestheticization of poverty, and the hypocrisies of her privileged lifestyle. With albums as vital and original as Arular and Kala, it was easy to defend her deterritorializations as a valid artistic strategy, a method of salvaging the radical moment and making it resonate with a Western audience weaned on hip-hop’s valorization of the outlaw. The Hirschbergs of the world are wrong when they attempt to bring M.I.A. to task for these perceived ethical violations, when her body of work is more productively viewed as a series of politically charged portraits in which that naïveté is essential to the revolutionary urgency she seeks to bring to the dancefloor. Unfortunately, this time out, M.I.A. just hasn’t given us enough to work with.