Album Review: M.I.A. – Maya

Abrasive, confrontational and idiosyncratic, M.I.A.’s third studio album can’t decide whether it’s a flame-throwing manifesto about “information politics” or an aggressive declaration of self.

Whatever its eventual goals, Maya is easily the artist’s most prickly offering to date—which, given M.I.A.’s track record, is saying something. And yet, it is also her most revealing.

The woman born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam (this album is named for her, just as her two previous records, Arularand Kala, were named for her father and mother, respectively) seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis throughout. Since her last record, 2007’s Kala—which produced the gigantic smash single “Paper Planes”—M.I.A. has settled down somewhat, moving in with her boyfriend (music business heir Ben Bronfman) and having a child in Los Angeles.

But is she giving in to the bourgeois lifestyle?

Even if she hadn’t publicly battled a New York Times journalist about the veracity of an interview where she supposedly ordered the high-brow snack of truffle French fries, it’s clear M.I.A.’s success as a producer and performer now stands at odds with her desire to be seen as a street-level revolutionary with little to lose.

The punishing, front part of the album—power tools provide the beat for “Steppin Up”—stands in sharp contrast to the almost soothing, gentle back portion (“Tell Me Why” is probably the closest M.I.A. will ever come to recording a ballad). It’s a striking dichotomy, this tough and soft, but M.I.A. embraces the challenge of reconciling the two.

Working with a roster of forward-thinking producers (Blaqstarr, Diplo, Rusko, Switch and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller), M.I.A. relies on startling samples, including snippets of Suicide and the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. The dense sonic landscapes invite repeated listens, moving past M.I.A.’s occasionally detached, occasionally Auto-Tuned vocal performances and unpacking the stellar work of her production team.

Maya doesn’t suggest M.I.A. has lost the taste for experimentation or that her ambition has lessened; “Gravity’s my enemy,” she warbles on the album closer “Space.” If anything, this record feels like someone with creativity to burn wrestling with the need for external expression.

Although M.I.A. could once affect the pose of a musical guerrilla, the passage of time and events that mark most every life (the arrival of domestic tranquility, material success, etc.) have forced a new perspective upon her.

Whether or not she’s comfortable with that change is a question Maya can’t—or won’t—answer.

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