The war of words between Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasm and New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg in the run up to the release of album number three from the British–Sri Lankan provocateur was rather more telling than the surface childishness suggested. By publicly brandishing Hirschberg’s phone number on Twitter as a weapon of revenge, M.I.A. was not only dishing out playground justice for the journalist’s unflattering and manipulative profile but plainly marking her territory in the biggest playground of all: the internet.
The online world has moved on considerably since M.I.A.’s playing of the Myspace game helped stoke the flames beneath her 2005 debut Arular, but so has she. The story of /\/\ /\ Y /\ (or simply Maya, to save on keystrokes) began six months ago with a mysterious video clip that went only by the tagline of “Theres space for ol dat I see”. A slice of killer dub and dancehall-infused astral pop, the accompanying video featured Arulpragasm dancing in a tiny, pitch-black corner, illuminated only by the patterns of green lasers glancing off her silhouette. The video was left to simmer, and despite the beauty of the song (which turned out to be Maya‘s ‘Space’) it didn’t otherwise say much about what M.I.A. phase III would involve.
The key reveal came a few months down the line with the explosive Romain Gavras-directed short film for the militant and thrashing metal of ‘Born Free’. Once again the internet proved to be the catalyst for M.I.A.’s incendiary message as the video chalked up over 1.8 million views in a week, and she spoke openly about how a paradoxical feeling of disconnection amid all this ever more accessible and penetrating technology inspired both the album and the artwork. And in case we didn’t get the message, she prefaces Maya with ‘The Message’, a tone-setting intro that morphs the sound of someone typing on a keyboard into a gritty, throbbing beat capped by a processed chant that doubles as the wet dreams of conspiracy theorists: “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone / connected to the iPhone / connected to the internet / connected to the Google / connected to the government.”
Subtlety, it seems, is not Maya‘s MO. The ferocious ‘Steppin’ Up’ grafts the sound of chainsaws onto a backdrop of metallic dubstep crafted by UK duo Switch and Rusko (on board as the album’s most frequenting guest producers) and punches into its ripping chorus of “M.I.A. / You know who I am!” with all the brutal crunch of a hardcore metal band. Then, without pause for breath, ‘XXXO’ breezes in with typical M.I.A. attitude and asserts itself foremost as a fantastic and seductive dancefloor filler, and again with its analysis of what constitutes eroticism in the hypersexual, hypercommercial environment we live in. Moving consciously away from the more ethnic song-fabrics of her earlier albums, these influences are instead tucked neatly into the airtight production to really colour the work rather than dominate it. Three songs in and Maya is already a riveting listen.
Elsewhere, the hectic, digitised bhangra of ‘Teqkilla’ is the stuff Missy Elliott only dreams of producing, while the unflinching tension of ‘Lovalot’ – a surprisingly understated cut inspired by the shocking story of a woman who suicide bombed a Russian subway to avenge her husband’s murder at the hands of the Russian police – and the razor-sharp, addictive dubstep of ‘Story To Be Told’ only add more force to Maya‘s sonic clout and gravitas to the underlying lyrical agenda. But M.I.A. isn’t just about the beats and the political beatings; as her “Donna Summer does Bollywood” classic ‘Jimmy’ proved, when she chooses to go mainstream she is up there with the best of them. A genius cover of Spectral Display’s 1982 cult hit ‘It Takes A Muscle (To Fall In Love)’ updates the lo-fi electro minimalists with a dancehall reggae vibe and a sniff of ‘Pass The Dutchie’, adding a welcome pinch of joy and love to the album as a surefire candidate for pop song of the year.
Whereas both M.I.A.’s previous albums ran out of steam in their final third, Maya dips only with the lacklustre ‘It Iz What It Iz’. Comparatively underdeveloped, it buzzes along on a sleepy midtempo synth, acting most effectively as something of a pitstop before the maxi-throttle blast of ‘Born Free’ boxes the listener royally in the ears – an ordeal followed swiftly by the 4/4 headbanging carnage of ‘Meds & Feds’, which, if nothing else, guarantees a churning moshpit at future gigs. Mopping the sweat from our brow the album then winds down with ‘Tell Me Why’, the lovely sung vocals harking back to the anthemic formula of ‘Paper Planes’, before finally coming full circle to where the story began, reassuring us that despite all the political and personal baggage that burdens our everyday lives there is beauty in the “space in ol dat I see”.
Going back to the idea of technological alienation, M.I.A. makes a bold case for the internet as a source of division as much as it is a tool to bring people together. Against the backdrop of these uncertain and volatile times, all industries are having to remodel themselves around the internet’s power. Old playground tactics can be amplified in moments to go viral, let loose and ungoverned into still-uncharted territory. What every industry needs now is a ringmaster who understands how to wield these weapons and use them to their utmost potential; there’s nothing crass or immature about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, or indeed playing them at their own game.
M.I.A. may still have a long way to go before being embraced as a sort of sonic Joan of Arc of the people (perhaps “the Lady Godiva of the digital age” will do for now), but in delivering such a ballsy, coherent and unignorable album as Maya she has really laid bare a few home truths and given us all something to gawp at. That we can also dance ourselves silly to it is really just a bonus.
[XL/N.E.E.T.; July 12, 2010]