Through it all — the spats with journalists, the pot shots taken at other artists, the bandied-about allegations of truffle fry ordering — there’s a reason why we continued to pay attention to M.I.A. It wasn’t just because we love celebrities who harness the media’s insatiable appetite for news to their own ends (though, admittedly, that may have had something to do with it). Rather, it was because M.I.A. has consistently shown an ability to back up her boasts with groundbreaking records. Her first two albums, 2005’s Arular and 2007’s Kala offered an exhilarating vision of what pop music might look like in a world without borders, inviting us to witness what happens when western aesthetics go global and eventually come home to roost. In just five short years, M.I.A. has managed to make a name for herself as one of pop music’s most sonically adventurous heralds, capable of penning hits while keeping her eyes planted firmly on the horizon.
Sadly, the cumbersomely-titled ///Y/ might mark the point at which Maya Arulpragasam’s self-aggrandizing finally catches up with her ability to deliver. That ///Y/ lacks the focus and confidence of M.I.A.’s previous albums is disappointing; that it finds Maya content to follow, rather than lead, is indefensible. While many of ///Y/‘s best songs feel like warmed-over retreads of M.I.A.’s previous work, its worst often feel like maneuvers cribbed from the playbooks of others.
To wit: the album’s best track, “Lovealot”, which employs a minimal, shuffling beat that, while stunning, would have felt right at home next to the rattling music boxes of Arular‘s “Amazon”. Likewise, “Teqkilla” hews pretty close to the template sketched out by “Galang”, punctuating a tambourine, tablas and handclaps with blasts of blocky 8-bit tones. And just as “Paper Planes” unabashedly sampled the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”, lead single “Born Free” borrows its hook from Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, though this time around, relatively little is added, save for live drums that augment the low-end roar of the original (good thing the song came accompanied by a brilliant, if blunt, piece of agit-prop, in the form of Romain Gavras’ genocidal music video, embedded below). Similarly, “It Takes a Muscle” borrows Spectral Display’s bizarre reggae-as-synth-pop ballad “It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love” whole cloth — lyrics, melody, title and all. The only noticeable differences are the tempo and the vocalist. While it’s easily one of ///Y/‘s more successful tracks, when compared to the original, “It Takes a Muscle” feels more like a karaoke act than an artful pastiche.
On the other side of the coin, we get songs like “XXXO”, which finds M.I.A. positioning herself as a late entrant to the auto-tune arms race of 2009, dropping gratuitous references to Twitter and iPhones while doing her best to strike a club-friendly pop star pose (the chorus, ironically enough, is, “You want me to be somebody / Who I’m really not”). More damning, though, is “Meds and Feds”, M.I.A.’s much ballyhooed collaboration with Derek Miller of 2010’s it-band, Sleigh Bells. While it’s hardly a bad song, objectively speaking, calling it a “collaboration” is a bit of a stretch–it really reads more like a sped-up remix of Sleigh Bells “Treats”, a song that, at this point, is less than two months old. And while that blown-out-guitar-riff-meets-handclaps formula still works wonders, it’s hard to ignore the fact that M.I.A. is peering over the shoulders of her own protégés here — she did, after all, sign Sleigh Bells to her N.E.E.T label. It’s almost as if she’s inviting us to ask the question, who’s riding whose coattails?
On the handful of songs on ///Y/ that find her exploring new musical territory, Maya doesn’t fare much better. It often feels like she’s casting about, trying to figure out where she fits into the pop landscape. “Steppin’ Up” attempts to pair industrial sounds with hip-hop swagger but quickly reveals that buzz saws and auto-tune don’t quite mix. Meanwhile, album closer “Space” is appropriately spacey, though perhaps too much so. The song starts to drag by the end of its brief, three-minute runtime, Maya’s repetitive, languid coos inducing fatigue rather than interest.
Even as it fails to break new ground for M.I.A. musically, ///Y/ is still a major departure for Maya in another way. Whereas both Arular and Kala addressed topics usually associated with the developing world (poverty, civil war, cultural imperialism), ///Y/ turns its focus toward the places that M.I.A. is now more commonly associated with, namely Los Angeles and the Internet. As exotic and distant as those previous signifiers sometimes felt, M.I.A.’s new concerns feel equally mundane, even predictable. There are plenty of meaningless boasts (“I run this fucking club”), hollow references to surveillance paranoia (“The Message” reminds us, less than subtly, that iPhones are connected to Google, which, in turn is, “connected to the government”) and throwaway choruses (“I got sticky, sticky, sticky, sticky weed / And a shot of tequila in me”). In some ways, “Born Free” sums things up quite nicely: at the outset she declares, “I got something to say”, though by the end, all we get is “I don’t wanna talk about money / ‘Cause I got it”. Perhaps the next time around, M.I.A. should take the time to figure out what it is that she does want to say before heading into the studio.