How much we can ever learn about an artist through her music is an open question, but it’s counterintuitive for even a contrarian like M.I.A. that the two albums she named after herself — 2010’s ///Y/ and her latest Matangi — seem to shed less and less light on who Mathangi Arulpragasam is, not just as a person, but as an artist. While M.I.A. has intimated that Matangi is a more spiritual and personal work, bear in mind that part of the inspiration for it came from Googling where her own birth name Mathangi came from, then deciding that the story of the Hindu goddess of music shared enough coincidences with her own to build an album around them. Indeed, it has always seemed a lot easier for Arulpragasam to construct an identity and a brand through mythical origin stories than to be comfortable in her own skin, as she originally constructed a persona as a pop radical through a biography defined by a relationship to a revolutionary father she barely knew, timely geopolitical conditions, and a brash, iconoclastic aesthetic with a vision that backed up her image. It’s also appropriate, then, that her most uneven and disjointed effort to date, ///Y/, was based on what she recently told Pitchfork was a “fake” name, coming at a time when her profile was most fraught, with her mystique as a rebel undone by the most infamous truffle fry ever.
What M.I.A. has revealed of her musical self more recently reflects something of an identity crisis that seems to boil down to her anxious transition from being an outsider to becoming an insider, an ambivalence that’s shown up in ///Y/ and now Matangi. The paradox, of course, is that M.I.A. was once able to infiltrate the culture at-large precisely by sticking to her guns and slipping in her subversive agenda in her tidy pop packages, whereas the possibilities of crossing over have only trapped her in the no man’s land between exploring the trappings of stardom and staying true to her art-scarred propaganda, only to make good on neither. So even if she likes to project a shrugging, above-it-all defiance for public consumption, that same brash, bulletproof identity that first burst on the scene about a decade ago with the finger-in-your-eye Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape has gone, well, missing in action.
As a result, that tension between working on her own terms as an anti-pop sloganeer and embracing the status of a would-be international trendsetter who can upstage Kanye and Jay-Z at the Grammys and Madonna at the Super Bowl (though in very different ways) manifests itself in an album that feels distracted and all over the place, the product of ADHD songmaking rather than the ingenious, resourceful imagination that once broke boundaries to establish her own new standards. Even though all the signifiers that identify M.I.A.’s music are present and accounted for on Matangi — the synthesized world music tropes, the blaring alarm effects, the stuttering beats, her sing-songy drawl — she isn’t able to blend them all together by the sheer force of her musical personality any more, much less with the conviction, consistency, and cohesion she did in her prime. While Arular augured a new revolution and Kala took on global inequality by any creative means necessary, there’s no clear central theme or controlling raison d’être holding the dizzyingly eclectic Matangi together, either artistically or ideologically.
Indeed, the most telling line on the album is when M.I.A. boasts on the title track, “If you’re gonna be me, you need a manifesto / If you ain’t got one, you better get one presto,” because it’s ironic that she herself is hardly able to articulate a clear statement of purpose for Matangi. For an artist who’s capable of conveying concrete, eagle-eyed detail and a critical perspective without sacrificing her poetics, her surface-deep catchphrasing feels more disappointing than it would in other cases. Particularly egregious is the way her ham-fisted lines ruin the epic scale and the luxurious atmosphere of the Weeknd-sampling “Exodus” and “Sexodus”, with the cringing come-on, “Do you want to come on a sexodus? / If you got swag, get with us,” spoiling the mood before it can build; nor does M.I.A.’s thin singing voice add to the music’s dramatic vibe either, especially when she tries to get existential on the refrain, “Baby, you can have it all / Tell me what for?” Likewise, the languorous semi-soul of “Know It Ain’t Right” tosses off the sorta dirty-minded chorus of “We know it ain’t right / But we do it anyway,” which ends up meaning nothing because it could refer to anything.
On the other hand, what could be more fortifying social commentary tends to come off vague and hard to follow, especially for someone who’s been much more pointed and targeted in her critiques before. While the title track, at first, appears suggestive as she lists third world country after third world country like it’s the preface to one of her patented diatribes, M.I.A. never gets to the point as she all but recites the atlas, only to call out no one in particular, bragging, “You’re school of fakeness / I’m school of hard knocks” — if anything, her put-downs on “Matangi” apply to herself as much as anyone else, like when she sneers, “They make big sounds / With nothing to say.” So there may be an agit-pop quality to the angular post-punkish electro of Julian Assange-aided “aTENTion”, but M.I.A.’s redundant rapping patterns and flat cadence blunt the music’s edge, particularly the way she throws out rhymes with lines that end in “-tent” like an online dictionary read by a Speak & Spell. And everything comes so rapid-fire on “Bring the Noize” that you can’t tell the difference between the non-descript sexual imagery (“Click, click, click / Get off my dick”) and her all-too-familiar conspiracy theories (“Cause it’s not me and you / It’s the fucking banks”), as if M.I.A. empties her clip hoping something might hit.
Musically speaking, there, too, is a scattershot quality to Matangi, marked by a throw it against the wall and see if it sticks approach that tends to confuse the sharp vitality of the quick mind that once identified M.I.A.’s sound with the manic energy of an overactive imagination that can’t quite find a focus. Even though M.I.A.’s working with vernaculars like bhangra and electronica, dance and punk, she’s obviously familiar with, the different elements tend to separate instead of meld together, as the special sauce she once created breaks on Matangi. With many of the individual tracks ending up less than the sum of their parts because they can’t sustain their sparks of inspiration, the whole album, in turn, lacks continuity, coherence, and form, unlike how Arular and Kala each had a bold sense of shape.
Sure, the visceral combination of morse-code synths, insinuating grooves, and full rhythms on “Bad Girls” still stands out to make it the signature single of latter-day M.I.A., but its snap and structure only emphasizes how most of Matangi needs more of both. Running from a woozy vocal part that recalls “na-na-na” refrain from Blur’s “Charmless Man” to irregular, ratatat beats to distorted snakecharming horns, “Come Walk with Me” is symptomatic of an album that teases a lot of styles, without gaining enough of a foothold to dig deep into any of ’em, while “Only 1 U” starts out strong with a skipping beat and what might be M.I.A.’s sharpest delivery on Matangi, only to fall short of following through because of her short-attention-span aesthetic. On the herky-jerky “Warriors”, the zithery effects, jittery beats, rounded percussion, and doom-laden string samples are placed incongruously next to each other as M.I.A. repeats “Warriors in the dance”, with none of the components pushing through or picking up enough momentum to maintain any semblance of flow. And although “Double Trouble Bubble” taps M.I.A.’s globetrotting vision more effectively as she touches on dub reggae rhythms, Indian strings, and hip-hop conventions, she’s done similar things to more dazzling effect before, since there’s less development here as she moves between these traditions rather than weaving them together more intricately.
That stalled growth speaks to where M.I.A. ends up on Matangi, since even the best moments on it feel a bit rote and too reminiscent of her finest hours on the first two albums, as if she hasn’t been able to advance her creativity much further. “Matangi” is the best case-in-point: On the title number, M.I.A. is able to recover some of the day-glo vibe and frenzied appeal that made an impact when she was starting out, but that might be because its high-energy world-music hybrid sounds like a variation on Kala‘s “Bird Flu” and “Boyz”. On the crisply syncopated “Y.A.L.A.”, M.I.A. does recapture some of the defiance and brassy swagger that’s distinguished her, but as a rejoinder to Drake’s Y.O.L.O. motto — “You always live again,” M.I.A. retorts, offering up her definition of karma — it feels like there’s a sense of originality missing as she responds to someone else’s agenda instead of setting her own.
Ultimately, it’s probably appropriate that Matangi‘s most personal and most incisive moment comes in the snippet-y interlude, “Boom Skit”, since it brings you into Arulpragasam’s world, only to cut itself off before it really gets going. At her most raw and confrontational, “Boom Skit” also finds M.I.A. as vulnerable as she was when no one knew who she was, brashly and wryly rapping, “Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down / You know America don’t want to hear your sound.” Except that’s exactly the sound you want to hear from her, the socially minded M.I.A. who’s free flowing and free associating, breathlessly linking her Super Bowl fiasco (“Let you into Super Bowl / You tried to steal Madonna’s crown”) to drone warfare to Kony 2012 as only she can. Unfortunately, though, “Boom Skit” only ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy when M.I.A. turns it into a footnote, as if deeming that it’s a side of her no one wants to hear as opposed to actually what it is: an illuminating yet all-too-fleeting instant when Matangi comes together because it proves that the complex, contradictory, and compelling persona behind the album can still pull herself together.