Hyped as the "next big thing" of 2004, Sri Lankan-born, London-based agit-prop chanteuse Maya Arulpragasam, or M.I.A. for short,
became a sensation with
the ferocious Galang (2003) and the pro-terrorist Sunshowers (2004).
Arular (XL, 2005), mostly produced by
Switch (David Taylor),
offered a few more variations on that fusion of
hip-hop, reggae and pop, while at the same time further diluting her ideology
(that embraces both the political and the sexual).
She doesn't fare too well as a second-rate
Public Enemy for the new century, but
the abrasive electronica, disjointed beats and babbling vocals constitute
a powerful combination in Pull Up the People.
Her militant-girlish singing is most effective in
the mock-heroic rigmarole of Bucky Done Gone and in the threatening
industrial pastiche Bingo.
Her balance of ethnic elements (Amazon, Galang)
and catchy refrains
(Hombre) made for an effective marketing tool.
Half of the songs are pure filler, as customary with debut albums
by "next big things".
Less immediate but more visceral,
Kala (Interscope, 2007), again produced by Switch, is a
giant cauldron of artificial, natural, social and musical sounds that come
from distant lands and distant contexts.
Ultimately, though, it is her youthful exuberance that triumphs.
She indulges in
the romantic singalong of Paper Planes (that engages in a call-and-response with a children's choir and would become a hit single)
and even in a Middle-Eastern disco folly with catchy refrain a` la
Abba (standout Jimmy).
Bamboo Banga and
World Town employ little more than
loops of infantile rigmaroles over straightforward beats, the former with the
cheerful counterpoint of other voices and the latter with the counterpoint of
XR2 plunges into Brazilian carnival.
Things get a bit more complicated along the way.
Fanfare-like keyboards dot the cascading African polyrhythm and hail the
instructor-like rap of the single Boyz.
The mutant, fractured synth-pop of
20 Dollar exales Middle-Eastern invocations over industrial-grade beats.
The rap of Bird Flu inhabits a demented pow-wow dance with children.
The leitmotiv is not the world but childhood:
simple repetitive percussion, amateurish arrangements and so forth...
the very opposite of "sophistication".
Having relocated to Los Angeles and become a mother, Arulpragasam greatly
increased the pop and dance appeal of her music to the masses on
Maya (XL, 2010), titled after herself (the first two albums were named
after her parents). Far from being merely a commercial sold-out, the album
is one hell of a schizophrenic artefact.
To start with, the booming over-the-top production of Chris "Rusko" Mercer
turns Steppin Up into a noise collage
and obliterates whatever merit the singing has, whereas the same treatment
in the disco-oriented XXX0 (her most radio-friendly hit yet)
enhances the singer's tragic melody,
and it brings out the demented side of things in the wildly deconstructed
Teqkilla, whose second half constitutes an audio phantasmagoria that
borders on musique concrete.
The turn towards the sonic extreme is crowned by the
whipping heavy-metal riffs and pounding wardrums of Meds And Feds.
She digs in the past of the "new wave" years to dig up a
reggae-fied cover of Spectral Display's It Takes A Muscle (1982)
and Born Free, a variation on
the neurotically pounding keyboards of Suicide's
Ghost Rider. Both ventures reveal an evil form of intelligence at work
that was unknown from her previous (alas sociopolitical) persona.
She travels even further back in town to mold the
Middle-Eastern singsong of Story To Be Told after the melody of the
French nursery rhyme Frere Jacques.
Another kindergarden-grade singsong pops up in Tell Me Why amid
seismic industrial thumps and snippets of ancestral choirs.
For sheer wordplay the winner is Lovalot, but this album is clearly
more about sound than words.
Where it works, it's M.I.A.'s best.
Vicki Leekx (2010) was a mixtape, and contained the future single
Bad Girls (2012).
Matangi (NEET, 2013) mainly succeeds when she adopts the tone of the
rebellious rap girl, as in
Come Walk With Me,
Bring the Noize and
They rarely excel as songs or raps, but they often feature
marvels of audio-collage acrobatics (Switch is the one who truly progressed
over the years).
The fact that the best song is three years old,
Bad Girls, and that the album contains her first pop ballads
are not good omens for the future.
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