A few days ago, M.I.A. released the full version of the song “Bad Girls,” a tune that was buried in her “Vicki Leekz” mixtape from last year. Later that day I saw a tweet from a friend saying “M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’: cracking, ever so slightly, the door I slammed shut after Maya. #fingerscrossed.” This opinion of her last album is the general consensus among most people I know, although most times when I bring up the subject, it’s usually returned with the concession, “I actually only listened to it once.”
Last year, I wrote a piece recapping the public’s backlash to “Maya,” the incredibly disdained third LP by M.I.A., that was difficult all the way down to its spelling (its official title being stylized as /\/\/\Y/\). The piece was in response to an interview she had done on “The George Stroumboulopous Show” on Canadian television, where he spoke with M.I.A. about her image damaging New York Times profile piece by Lynn Hirschberg.
The dust has long since settled since the summer of 2010, the season where we learned M.I.A. was not bulletproof. Up until that article and the album which followed soon after, M.I.A. was unstoppable — her every move being a subject headline for music blogs everywhere. The reason why Hirschberg’s article was crucial to “Maya”‘s failure is that it discredited her as a serious artist and presented her as a glorified pop star. We as a public have been fine praising pop stars when they deliver the pop goods. Not many would think of Beyoncé as an artist in the same sense we would consider Jean-Michel Basquiat, but we still consider songs like “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” as important documents in the pop world regardless.
With the exception of the surprisingly overlooked single, “XXXO,” “Maya” was a record that proved M.I.A. was not interested in putting out a pop album. For an artist that already toed the line between pop and experimentalism, the jump into the latter wasn’t exactly surprising. M.I.A. had a great deal of indie cred before “M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop” broke, and if she put out the record six months earlier, I feel that the reception would have been quite different.
Sure the “Paper Planes” fans that had no use for jittery stompers like “Boyz” and “Bird Flu” would have shied away from it, but even those that liked her anarchist outbursts and avant-pop deconstructions on “Kala” and “Arular,” were just not taking the plunge on “Maya.” Hirschberg’s takedown of M.I.A. exposed parts of her that made a lot of listeners think twice, including myself. The point, however, is that “Maya” is a pretty adventurous record that delivers well on unique production techniques, no wave influences, and despite popular belief, pop hooks, whether or not it’s by an artist that cries out “give war a chance” while stuffing a truffle fry into her mouth.
The Sleigh Bells-assisted “Meds and Feds” is probably the best summation of the album as a whole. Vicious and unyielding, Derek E. Miller’s brand of cracking beats under chainsaw guitars savagely rips across the song as M.I.A.’s lyric, “I just give a damn,” is repeated ad infinitum like a mantra. The song which was recorded before Sleigh Bells’ full-length debut, “Treats,” has been cited by Miller as the catalyst for his confidence to produce that album himself. Popular music blogs like Pitchfork dismissed the song as a wasted opportunity, possibly because the song “Treats,” which recycles the same riff, was released first. Ultimately, M.I.A.’s frantic use of it trumps the sludgy Sleigh Bells version.
The album’s other big aggressor comes in the form of “Born Free,” a song that was eclipsed by an over the top video that depicted red-headed boys being rounded up and executed in a field. The video was incredibly startling and crushed the song’s impact over the violent imagery, especially since the tune faded in and out of the piece in a most irritating fashion. “Born Free” is a furious adrenaline shot to the heart that slips and slides out time in a totally chaotic fashion. Its choice as the first single was bold and completely bad-ass.
The album has its pop moments, though. As mentioned earlier, “XXXO” was as club ready as anything off “Kala.” Provocative while perched on a hook in line with dance club chanteuses of the ’90s, its lack of promotion was the real missed opportunity of “Maya.” The Spectral Display cover of “It Takes a Muscle” showed that Diplo and M.I.A. still could make a great quasi-reggae groove together, while “Tell My Why” showcased the producer’s talent for taking wobbly vocal samples and making it into a great basis for freaky pop. All three cases are also great examples of M.I.A. as a singer, auto-tuned or not.
Industrialized death stomps like “Steppin’ Up” and “Teqkilla” were probably the worst received. Loaded in the front end of the album, they were abrasive and cruel on the pop ear, both filled with drill-like synths and abrasive clangs that even the most off-beat club would find trouble spinning confidently. That may be what the public took most issue with; as weird as “Kala” and “Arular” were, all the songs had some sort of foundation in the dance floor. “Maya” was something that needed to be listened in other ways.
“Maya” was a record that begged to be taken seriously in a time when people were sick of taking M.I.A. seriously. With the announcement of her fourth record this summer, she is now in a pretty rough spot. She can either continue down her bridge-burning path and be hated for it, or retreat back to safer ground and be effectively chastised for catering to the public.
At this point, it’s difficult conjuring up what the public wants from M.I.A. Do we want her to be a cultural soldier, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in pop music, or do we want her to shut up and play the hits? The reaction to “Maya” seems to indicate the latter, but to her I say, “soldier on.”
M.I.A. – “XXXO”
M.I.A. – “Meds and Feds”
M.I.A. – “Born Free”
M.I.A. – “It Takes a Muscle”
M.I.A. – “Teqkilla”