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Maya is M.I.A’s third full length release, following critically acclaimed Arular and Kala. Lately she’s been in the limelight for her immature twitter beef with journalist Lynn Hirschberg who wrote the now-infamous New York Times Magazine profile on her, along with conflicts with ex-BF/producer Diplo, a clusterf!@# of a record release party in NYC, and just yesterday the cancellation of LA’s HARD festival that she curated and was was meant to headline. You could call Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam a sheep in wolves’ clothing: there’s a contrast between her rebellious, socially conscious and street smart stage personality, and the designer-clad, exclusive private life she lives with her filthy rich husband Benjamin Zachary Bronfman, son of Warner Music CEO and Seagram liquors heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. Rappers have inflated their street cred for years, but there’s something about M.I.A.’s global outlaw persona that has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
Of course, none of this should matter. And it wouldn’t if Maya was an exceptional album. Like on her previous work, M.I.A. still mixes politics, social rants and experimental genre blending. Onboard are her standby producers Switch and Diplo, along with newcomers Rusko and Blaqstarr, who all combined craft a record that is heavily influenced by dubstep, electro, punk, industrial and pop. But this time around there’s only one dancefloor friendly track, and the rest of the album is a big messy quilt.
Album opener “The Message” is a horribly paranoid rant of information politics and media conspiracy lyrics rambled over a distorted and staccato beat. “iPod is connected to the Google is connected to the government.” Yes, and if you watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon, they synch up. Woooaaaah.
“Steppin Up” ifollows; a Rusko & Switch production with a brilliant heavy guitar riff. It’s slow and bass heavy, but still catchy. Next is the album’s only club track, the Blaqstarr produced “XXXO”. It’s a hyper commercial, Britney-esque pop song, but a surprisingly well fit for M.I.A., who demonstrates her strongest vocal performance on record. Then it starts to go downhill again with the patchy and messy “Teqkilla,” reminiscing a bad Lady Sovereign track hyping “sticking icky weeEEEEd.” “Lovalot” has off-kilter beats; a deep bass over an intricate rhythm pattern, and she sings the words “I really love a lot,” so they sound like “I really love Allah.” It’s a reference to the teenage Islamic widow who avenged her terrorist husband’s killing last year by suicide-bombing a Moscow subway. Dicey politics by anyone standards.
“It Takes A Muscle” is a dubby and tropical song produced by Diplo that could easily fit on a Rihanna record. It’s the closest thing to the pop hit of “Paper Planes” but honestly tries to hard to repeat that formula. “Born Free,” the weakest track on the album is a dreadful “punk” tune that fails from the start. The Switch and Rusko-produced song sounds like something from Moby’s failed metal experiment Animal Rights, one of popular music’s definitive misguided artistic experiments.
Throughout, Maya is clearly meant to be a difficult album, rife with production that purposefully skips notes. Yet it’s hard to enjoy something that feels broken. M.I.A.’s schizophrenic style does not please this time around. The industrial and mechanical soundscape lacks both genuine protest songs or club jams. It has traces of strong songwriting and interesting lyrics, but it fails to be fully materialized. The production sounds patchy and noisy, homemade and even borderline dull, which is unheard of for M.I.A. Her music is not playful, but most of the lyrics are still banal. She still doesn’t consider herself a commercial artist, and she proves that with this album. The nicest thing one could say is that Maya is definitely not a sellout. It will be, however, ranked as one of the classic failed albums.
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