The gulf between how much fun it is to talk about M.I.A. and how much fun it is to actually listen to M.I.A.’s music has stretched into a yawning, bottomless abyss, centuries of continental drift telescoped into a few months of the most deranged, pervasive, and potentially destructive PR blitz this side of LeBron James: Hijacking Pitchfork‘s Twitter feed and indulging her wackiest one-liner knucklehead-agitprop tendencies (“go egosurfing DRINK A SHOT OF TEQUILLA spamouflaged in brandalism”). Saddling “Born Free,” one of the best and most brutal songs on her third album, (only gonna do this once) ///Y/, with a lurid, preposterous redhead-genocide video, viral in both the desirable and undesirable sense. And, yes, that article, a Lynn Hirschberg Times magazine takedown so equally lurid and preposterous that it ensures that whatever other egosurfing antics Maya Arulpragasam cooks up this year, no matter the revolutionary sonic content of Maya (much better) itself, the two words that best sum up her 2010 will remain “truffle fries.”
Does any of this actually hurt M.I.A.—her sales, her profile, her career, her ongoing craft of “brandalism”? Of course not. As her fans and champions have insisted for years, her contradictions, her incongruities, her frustrating oversimplifications of lethally complex geopolitical phenomena are precisely what make her so fascinating, so vital. But does it hurt those of us as drawn to Maya as Maya, those eager to clamp on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, drown out the largely self-induced media blare, and engage with the record and the record alone? Will any of those be-headphoned people even make it all the way through “Teqkilla”? Are they even meant to?
Yes, Maya finds its namesake as frustrating and contradictory as ever, a few transcendent moments diluted by wan balladry, corny Internet-based gibes (“You’re Tweetin’ me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone,” c’mon), and a few flares of outright hostility, like the record itself is actually mad at you. The angry ones show up early, unfortunately. After a quick intro to assert that the government is spying on you via Google (does Jesse “The Body” Ventura still have that Conspiracy Theory show? Can we give it to her instead?), we are unceremoniously dumped into the industrial, screeching-power-tool nightmare of “Steppin’ Up,” harsh and abrasive and thoroughly unpleasant. “You know who I am, I run this fucking club,” she deadpans. “Dub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub, club-a-club-a-lub-a-lub.” Verily, “Teqkilla” is even worse, if only by virtue of being longer: six-plus minutes of club-rat screeching (actual chorus: “I got sticky-sticky, icky-icky weeeeeed/And a shot of a tequila in me”), a particularly eardrum-piercing digital buzzsaw boring into your head at regular intervals.
These can’t help but feel like Penalty Songs, exacting punishments for misinterpreting or maligning her. Mashed between them is “XXXO,” a monster-hook dance-pop jam that immediately strikes you as wildly incongruous and eventually strikes you as pretty great, a torrent of antsy synth arpeggios swirling about during the thesis-statement chorus: “You want me be somebody who I’m really not.” (Hey, that’s what fit.) This is a theme with M.I.A., lately. “All I ever wanted was my story to be told,” she insists on the blaring but beautiful “Story to Be Told,” riding shuddering bass rumbles and a sing-song chant pitched somewhere between a childlike Bollywood melody and a Muslim call to prayer; a wayward, Akon-lite trifle tossed off halfway through is instructively titled “It Iz Whut It Iz”; “I’m a singer/Never said anything else,” went the nominal chorus to the (pretty terrible) Internet-only Lynn Hirschberg diss track. (Petty, underhanded article, but Jesus, Maya, why did you Tweet her phone number?) It’s not her fault that some dismaying percentage of Americans only know about Sri Lanka what M.I.A. has deigned to tell them in that maddening, somewhat sensationalistic, not-at-all unbiased way of hers, but Maya nonetheless doesn’t so much backpedal as radically simplify her message, perhaps best articulated during the Sleigh Bells–assisted thrash-metal maelstrom of “Meds & Feds”: “I just give a damn, damn, damn.”
M.I.A.’s best tracks have a much calmer, spacier, weed-addled, mega-reverbed vibe (think Kala‘s titanic, New Order–scrambling “$20” if you’ve finally tired of “Paper Planes”), and of the myriad producers at work here (Rusko, Switch, Blaqstarr, and Maya herself among them), Diplo still gets at it best, her initial cohort and foil, coaxing airy prettiness out of the fairly lightweight ’80s pop-reggae cover “It Takes a Muscle” and ramping up the sadly sweet melodrama of “Tell Me Why,” Maya’s voice heavily treated but still oddly frail and unguarded-sounding, a sort of vocal Uncanny Valley in reverse. But unless you’re particularly wild about the Suicide-sampling “Born Free” (those drums, bombastic and barely constrained, are pretty incredible), the undeniable highlight here is “Lovealot.”
It starts terribly, actually: “They told me this was a free country/But now it feels like a chicken factory.” Arf. What follows, though, is an eerie, minimalist, supremely confident, fantastically disturbing character sketch based in part on the “Black Widow” suicide bomber who killed dozens in a Moscow subway attack allegedly meant to avenge the death of her husband. (An “Islamic extremist version of Bonnie and Clyde,” the Daily Mail called them, next to photos of the couple locked in armed-to-the-teeth embrace.) “I fight the ones that fight me,” is Maya’s, and Maya‘s, chilling conclusion. No one else on earth could make this song and sell it to however many tens of thousands of people will buy this record this week; she remains vitally important to The Discourse for that reason alone. Maya both reminds you of that fact—of that sickly sweet spot only she can hit—and warns you how long and punishing a road it can be to get there. For her, and for you.