album review for the skinny
When M.I.A. released a song attacking journalists just days after a scathing recent New York Times article, it either demonstrated a remarkable speed of execution, or that she had lots of room in her personal protesting schedule. That article exposed some of the half-truths in the M.I.A. mythos, including the discomforting leak that – having broken through as a pop artist with Paper Planes two years ago, and since got engaged to a multi-millionaire boyfriend – she's now very rich and famous. That's common for pop stars, but it leaves M.I.A. vulnerable: her rebel shtick could make her look like a trustafarian in a Che Guevara t-shirt if she isn’t careful with her words.
On new single Born Free she acknowledges that problem, singing “I don’t wanna talk about money, cos I got it”. She’s been forced to rein in the rhetoric, and thankfully she doesn’t say anything stupid on Maya about terrorism or truffles. But the problem with Maya is rooted in a far more mundane circumstance than the disorientating effect of celebrity: it’s that contentedness cools creativity. The NYT piece gave her a cause to fight for – her own reputation – hence the quick turnaround. But everything’s gone right for M.I.A. in the three years since second album Kala, so it’s no surprise that Maya is missing the spikiness so central to her personality.
Born Free is the stand-out, though – blowing through a four minute declaration of freedom in a frenzy, using an amped-up Suicide sample for its irresistible momentum. Story To Be Told combines heavily processed wailing Bollywood vocals and a low-flying jet with a cutting, juddering synth bassline, while Tell Me Why takes the Panda Bear route to psychedelia by endlessly looping and echoing choral samples. XXXO is probably the closest thing Maya will have to a hit, with a great shimmering synthline and a cloying hook: “you want me [to] be somebody who I’m really not”.
But it’s hard to take anything from, for example, Steppin’ Up, except the conclusion that the use of chainsaws for percussion is nowhere near as cool as it should be; or Teqkilla, which somehow stretches the dubious idea to pun on various drinks brands over six minutes of stuttering noise. If the politics of rebellion are now off-limits for M.I.A., then she’ll have to find something else to get angry about; we know what she thinks of journalists, so her fourth album is bound to be better.