Review: M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\ (MAYA)

/\/\ /\ Y /\ by M.I.A. (2010, Interscope)

MIA has always declared she has something to say, but the message is usually convoluted and indirect.  When the Internet propelled her to international notoriety, the political standpoint and unverified past were always interesting stories, yes, but the music was always the focus.

After the entertaining introduction (Arular), the follow-up that made her a superstar (Kala), and numerous polarizing interviews, MIA only verified the hunch many had – she was a great artist and entertainer, and the politics were a gimmicky footnote to the whole package.  Still, it didn’t matter.  Innovative production, machine-gun sound effects, and infectious hooks always helped make up for the odd public spectacles or general lack of knowledge MIA was delivering at the time.

Sadly, this is not the case with /\/\ /\ Y /\ (or MAYA).  Whatever confusing message or peculiar declaration she is trying to convey this time around, it’s not going to take, because the accompanying score is her first giant misstep.  Though not entirely flawed, it’s a scrambled, spotty soundtrack with few memorable tunes and occasionally as tacky and lazy as its album artwork and cringe-worthy title.

This is apparent from the get-go – “The Message” begins MAYA with an utterly ridiculous computer-generated conspirator spout regarding the degrees of separation between an individual and Big Brother.  Whatever the purpose, I doubt MIA will convince a single living soul to stop using Google with this mess.  From here, it becomes a slightly embarrassing event.

While lyrics have never been MIA’s strong suit, the phrase “Tweeting me like Tweety Bird on your iPhone” and the absurd repetition of “rub-a-dub-a-dub-a-dub” are a new bewildering low.  Meanwhile, grating chainsaw samples litter “Steppin’ Up,” lack of direction makes “XXXO” feel incomplete and jarring melodies occasionally pop up a la “It Iz What It Iz” and “Story to Be Told.”  Then there’s “Teqkilla,” a track signed on as this album’s “Bird Flu,” but unlike that Kala classic, MIA’s new experimentation with high-pitched beeps annoys rather than delightfully surprises.

Still, there are some bright spots in between the barrage of power tools and thrown-together works disguised as new club jams.  Maya channels solo Gwen Stefani in the highlight “It Takes a Muscle”, where the vocals are altered to helium-like squeaking for the chorus.  The track is more laid-back and optimistic, and as part of MAYA it seems out of place; by itself, however, it is clearly an accomplished work.

The freshest approach on the disc is found in “Born Free,” which loops a Suicide punk riff and rocks like a genuinely powerful protest song (the provocative music video certainly helps).  The Auto-Tuned swagger of Diplo’s “Tell Me Why” is the closest we come to an undying thrill like “Paper Planes.”  “Space” is beautiful and banging as well, and features one of the most addictive refrains of the summer.

Disappointedly, these strong points are few and far between, and the majority of MAYA feels phoned in, as is obvious on “Meds and Feds.”  Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller produces filler for an already mediocre record, dishing out what is at its core a half-assed remix of his band’s “Treats.”

Perhaps the theme of MAYA is a commentary on the muddled state of digital media and technology; one would assume MIA is describing the confusion of the new era we live in and the information overload that surrounds us on a daily basis.  This would explain the YouTube-inspired cover, and, to an extent, the new sound, filled with blankets of noise and industrial music.  Unfortunately, it’s an idea that doesn’t really go anywhere – she has scraped together twelve songs just as incoherent as the machine she’s supposedly rallying against.  It’s up for debate whether MIA has ever been informative, but for the first time, she’s definitely puzzling.

Rating: 5

M.I.A. – Space

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