Album Review: M.I.A., "Maya"

July 21, 2010

M.I.A., "Maya" (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope) Rating: 3/4

“You want me to be/Somebody who I’m really not,” Sri Lankan-born, British-raised rapper and artistic provocateur Maya Arulpragasam chants on “XXXO,” one of the most striking tracks from her much-ballyhooed third album. She’s addressing a clingy lover who’s foolishly trying to remake her strong-willed personality—“tweeting me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone”—but she might as well be talking to her legions of champions and detractors.

Now that M.I.A. has risen from the underground buzz of her first two albums, “Arular” (2005) and “Kala” (2007), to being lauded at the Grammys and achieving a measure of Lady Gaga-like superstardom, opinion-makers seem to be evenly divided between hailing her as a post-feminist pop goddess and revolutionary dedicated to blowing things up from the inside out and tearing her down as a phony, a now super-rich Givenchy-sporting mom married to an heir to the Seagram’s fortune who’s merely playing at throwing hand grenades at the hegemony pulled out of her Hermès clutch. (Just try reading this love letter from Ann Powers of the L.A. Times side by side with Lynn Hirschberg’s now infamous takedown in the N.Y. Times and see if that exercise doesn’t make your head explode.)

Me, I’ve always fallen somewhere in the middle on M.I.A.: Here’s my review of “Kala,” and here’s a chat we had in 2005, which includes the telling comment, “I didn’t want to make huge political statements; in fact, I hate preachy s— and people saying, ‘This is good; this is bad.’ I talk about how I see things as an everyday person in England.”

Well, she may no longer be an everyday person, and she’s traded England for Hollywood, but the way I hear it, she’s still just telling it like she sees it with preaching kept to a minimum on “Maya,” whether she’s expressing not unreasonable fears about the Internet being transformed by corporate powers from an information superhighway into the ultimate Big Brother spy network (“Internet Connection”), or laughing a bit at herself and her new hubby (in the oft-quoted line from “Tekqilla,” “When I met Seagram’s, sent Chivas down my spine”).

In any event, the fun is less in the lyrics than in the globe-spanning dance-punk assault, loving crafted with a hipper-than-hip roster of producers including Switch, Diplo, Blaqstarr, and Derek E. Miller, and veering far and wide to make use of everything from a snippet of “Ghost Rider” by the pioneers of this genre, Suicide, to post-industrial Nine Inch Nails/Ministry guitar assaults and jackhammer rhythms, with a few nods to Bollywood along the way.

Because it’s her most aggressive release, “Maya” may even be my favorite M.I.A. records—though as with its predecessors, the high points (“Born Free,” “Lovalot”) are pretty evenly balanced with the low ones (the sappy “It Takes a Muscle” and “It Is What It Iz”), which makes M.I.A. merely a pretty good artist, and far from a great one. Which is fine—far be it from me to try to make her somebody who she’s really not.