M.I.A.'s main themes for her third album - finally named after herself after using her parents’ names for her first two - are made clear in the angry, industrial beat-backed intro, “The Message” : “Headbone connected to the headphones/Headphones connected to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government.” She is not here to play. Technology, information, the internet and the politics thereof are going to be dealt with, and not with a smile. In addition to her naming Apple and Google as government conspirators in the first minute of the album, MAYA’s cover artwork includes images of YouTube’s player bars obscuring M.I.A.’s face.
And Sri Lanka in the year after the end of the civil war there and the Tamil genocide. M.I.A.’s attainment of semi-establishment status (an Oscar nomination, a Grammy nomination) is pushed away like a tantrum-throwing baby pushing away a fork at the dinner-table, both musically and lyrically. M.I.A. is famously full of contradictions, such as dealing with violence with violent music, lyrics and images, and knows it: “I don’t wanna talk about money/Coz I got it.” and “I really love a lot/But I fight the ones that fight me”.
The recent addition of sparse industrial and rock to M.I.A.‘s usual punk electro on MAYA is probably epitomised on “Steppin Up”, an imperious, vocal delivery over machine samples and claps. But one of the biggest developments on MAYA is the artist’s decision to sing more, probably prompted by the success of “Paper Planes”.
Such as on “XXXO” and “It Iz What It Iz”, pop electro dance pieces laden with great melodic hooks. They wouldn’t go astray on a Kylie Minogue album, or more likely, amongst Peaches’ occasional dabblings in hi-fi pop on her last few albums. Except that M.I.A. mentions Twitter, iPhones, and Michael Moore.
“Teqkilla” comes with a simple chorus that is punctuated with Atari-sounding bleeps and one particularly irritating distorted treble note. Somehow it is saved from irrelevance by M.I.A.’s vocal spattering in her catchy chorus and a variety of well-layered percussive samples. In fact, not just saved but made into something unforgettable.
The first single, “Born Free”, was pushed to the front of the line against record company wishes by a self-produced, epic, controversial video. It is almost a metal anthem. M.I.A.’s vocals are distorted and sound as if underwater, while a simple, recurring bass riff sample underpins the whole affair. The electro-metal also continues on the disappointing “Meds and Feds”.
On “Lovalot”, and “Story To Be Told”, M.I.A. revives the “where did that come from?” punk-electro stylings, the dexterous tongue twisting and the calm, monotonous, angry, sexy vocal strength of her work on Arular and Kala. The latter, perhaps the strongest track on the album, also benefits from rich, full electronic production, a fast-wobbling bass (surely dubstep maestro Rusko?), shimmering percussion and luxurious South Asian vocal samples.
“Tell Me Why” blends effortlessly into “Space”, both beautiful ballads - sung meditations on interpersonal interactions. Both are two of the strongest tracks but “Space” is blessed with more thoughtfully-selected samples and floating vocal mixing.
The worst track on the album, “It Takes A Muscle” sounds like an off-cut from collaborator Diplo’s Major Lazer album; a musically banal, disaster of a ballad set to lame reggae.
The biggest surprise of MAYA is that it’s a continuing development of the merging of M.I.A.’s unerring ear for percussion and her punk, occasionally low-fi electro, along with her famous vocal trickery. It is not the big departure from Kala that the first single or critics would have us believe. There is perhaps just more of an edge to this album than its predecessors. M.I.A. still has it. And a singing voice apparently, imperfect as it is.