The seemingly constant buzz of rumors, insinuations, and accusations that swirls around Maya Arulpragasam, aka divisive Sri-Lanka-via-London artist M.I.A., is something she must surely be used to at this point. As one of the first-class provocateurs of the music world, this is really the ideal state for her persona — with her supposed controversies at once intensely maligned and defended, these diametrical voices turn sparks into virtual firestorms of gossip across the internet and other media, ultimately promoting her music along the way. Or as Maya puts it more simply on “Tell Me Why”, the anthemic penultimate track from her new record, “I’ve been comin’ up, for a while, on your radar / and I made it just by countin’ up my hater[s]”.
Just in time for // / Y /, M.I.A. has worked up one of those firestorms in what is now being hilariously referred to as “Trufflegate”. After she exposed some inconsistencies in the Lynn Hirschberg-penned character assassination artist profile for The New York Times — including the question of those damning truffle fries — and less coolly tweeted that journalist’s phone number for all to see, there was little hope to escape discussion of the issue on whatever music site or blog you visited. It’s so convenient, you might wonder how much of it Maya could have possibly calculated. Did she know she was walking into what now practically seems like a setup in the hopes of proving previous criticisms of the NY Times and other media, all the while bolstering her own profile? Either way, you can’t help but ask: where would M.I.A. be without haters?
Of course, what are haters without fans? From the moment she dropped her debut mixtape and on through the release of two solid full-length albums, Maya has had no problem rallying more and more around her massive, Third World championing, electro-dance bedlam. Though no stranger to clusterfuckery, her latest full-length finds the poppiest and noisiest elements of her sound less finely intertwined and presented instead as a chaotic clash of purer sounds, in a sense mirroring the arguments that surround her public persona. Fitting then that much of this sort-of self-titled record finds M.I.A. musing from a more personal perspective, littering her political commentaries and more playful jams with self-referential metaphors and wordplay. Unfortunately, on a whole, this ambitious aesthetic comes off as a little half-baked and may actually go down as the first disappointment for the M.I.A. faithful.
The most sluggish moments on // / Y / arise from middling, confused compositions that lack her characteristic bombastic power, melodic strength, or even coherent songwriting, opting instead to tumble along without much of a discernible center. On the flip side — though a few high points are dragged down by their compositional disarray and some unfashionable uses of auto-tune — when this record is on it can be quite impressive. “Steppin’ Up” is a monstrous banger that makes extensive and inventive use of power tool samples, layering a cacophonous percussion of drills and saws underneath the song’s grinding hooks. This raucous dissonance is equally effective on the more cohesive, but still spastic “Teqkilla”, a richly produced ocean of bleeps, bloops, blips, and percussive clatter. Towards the middle of the record, M.I.A. chills things out with some mostly forgettable songs and the catchy, sweet, dub-pop standout/quasi-cover “It Takes a Muscle” before cranking into the album’s Suicide-sampling lead single, “Born Free” (which I still think falls kind of flat). But at least she closes // / Y / on a high note with the auto-tuned, Animal Collective-esque grower “Tell Me Why” and the buzzing, ethereal sonic waves of “Space”.
I will say that I look forward to revisiting this record. Perhaps I’m simply missing a solid creative thread hidden somewhere in this mess, or maybe I’ll warm up to a few more of these songs. Either way, while I won’t be surprised if it wins over a handful of new fans who didn’t quite get M.I.A. until now, for the converted, // / Y / feels like a bit of a misstep relative to the overwhelming, refreshing strength of her work up to this point.
Download: M.I.A. – Teqkilla (Lost My Fone Out wiv Nicki Minaj Remix)
Buy: You can order // / Y / from Insound as CD, Deluxe CD, or LP.