M.I.A.'s /\/\ /\ Y /\ takes some risks that (mostly) pay off
It's inherent to the nature of risk that to take one involves the possibility of failure. On M.I.A.'s latest, /\/\ /\ Y /\ (which is the last time we'll be typing that, by the way), pronounced "Maya," the album's namesake definitely takes some risks. But then, M.I.A. is no stranger to that: There's no denying her music's always been, to varying degrees, pretty weird.
On the new record, M.I.A. ups the weirdness quotient a bit compared to 2007's Kala, but not that much within the context of her work. In many ways, Maya represents only a step away from Kala's more cohesive, mainstream-friendly beats and back toward the disjointed, quirky dancehall of 2005's Arular.
Like Arular, Maya treats its influences -- largely dub and dancehall electronica -- more as concepts, stretching them out and deconstructing them to the point of fragmentation. And she's always been more interested in arrangement than composition; as on previous releases, M.I.A.'s songs drone in a way the more closely resembles shoegaze. Her strength and her challenge remains to arrange cleverly enough to make the drone interesting.
On this one, she mostly succeeds. As is immediately apparent from the first track, which starts out with the sound of typing, M.I.A. seems to have developed a fascination of found sounds, which are heavily sampled throughout the record. On "Steppin Up," for example, the noise of what sounds like an impact wrench, a power drill and a chainsaw are manipulated into beats and paired with gobbelty-gook lyrics like "clubba-rubba-lubba-lub" for a finished product that -- surprisingly -- actually grooves.
Not all the tracks are quite so experimental. "It Takes a Muscle" is a pretty straightforward reggae jam that employs creative use of synthesizers. Elsewhere, songs like "Teqkilla," a six-minute number that begins with thirty-seconds of sound effects before a beat even drops, probably push the envelope beyond the patience of all but M.I.A.'s most devoted fans.
Lyrically, M.I.A. still can't seem to decide if she wants to be a guerrilla or a diva, with lyrics pretty much evenly split between club anthems and relationship songs, and those with a vaguely political bent: "iPhone connected to the internet connected to the Google connected to the government," for example. Which, Jesus, paranoid much? And then, of course, there's "Born Free," whose lyrics aren't really overtly political but whose mostly unrelated video takes the prize for one of the most bizarrely violent political statements ever (check it out below).
All the same, if you can ignore the jewel-studded Che Guevara T-shirt, M.I.A. remains an intelligent, creative musician with an instinct for exploration, and Maya is perhaps her most compelling--and challenging--disc yet.
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