Top positive review
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A challenging, yet exciting album.
on July 17, 2010
In the past, M.I.A. had the luxury of releasing her albums quietly. Her feisty debut, Arular, was quickly devoured by fans of her prior mixtape with Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism, and immediately garnered overwhelming critical success... but not much else. Word of mouth caused her sophomore album, Kala, to debut at an impressive number 18 on the Billboard 200, but she still remained a relatively well-kept secret in the music world until one of the album's tracks, "Paper Planes," crept up and became the surprise mega-hit of 2008, while also almost single-handedly winning the album a gold certification from the RIAA.
Suddenly, Maya had gained commercial success to match the critical praise, which I'm sure she found incredibly hard to grapple with; all of a sudden, this outspoken, opinionated, passionate, but ultimately misunderstood artist--who was accustomed to small venues and notoriety strictly limited to the Pitchfork crowd--was being heard and watched by millions. Millions who, quite frankly, don't "get it." Millions who, although they now have a newfound desire to listen to her, don't necessarily want or have the intelligence to truly hear her. During the months leading up to the release of her third effort, her words have been twisted, her jokes have been misconstrued, her political statements have been dismissed as empty threats (or, even worse: publicity stunts), and her lyrics have been robbed of their meaning by the mainstream audiences and media. To quote a track from Arular, it seems this crowd of new fans would rather see her as "fun for the people" than "armed and equal." Even more detrimental, though, was the now infamous profile of the artist for a May issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which the author, Lynn Hirschberg, reduced Maya to a walking contradiction: a silly, hypocritical, and paranoid little Tamil girl who rambles on and on about the injustice of the recently defunct Sri Lankan Civil War that she knows nothing about (even though she lived through part of it and her father abandoned her family in order to become one of the most notable figures of the Tamil struggle, mind you), all while idly munching on truffle French fries, anxiously waiting to return to her son and wealthy fiancé at her million-dollar-plus abode.
Well, on M.I.A.'s third effort, /\/\/\Y/\, the apparently self-contradictory facets of her personality work to her benefit, ultimately creating a widely varied and exciting, yet balanced, listen. It's hard to imagine the thrashing duo of angry, loud, gritty, anarchic, and slightly hard to digest rock-inspired "Born Free" and "Meds And Feds" could be coming from the same woman who on just the track before--the wandering, sing-songy "It Iz What It Iz"--frankly states, "they all got issues, but I got a bit more." The artist herself explains it best on one of the album's highlights, the smolderding and quietly rebellious "Lovalot:" "I really love a lot, but I fight the ones that fight me." This sort of dichotomy between her aggressive, playful, Arular-esque and her more vulnerable, introspective, Kala-esque self is spread throughout. " The reggae-infused "It Takes A Muscle," one of Diplo's only contributions here, is the closest thing to a love song she has ever crafted, while the first four song chunk will satisfy anyone craving the rambunctious, adventurous Maya from her first effort.
"Steppin' Up" is the most impressive track of the bunch, and it immediately stands out as such. How could a song that begins with percussive power tools not? "Teqkilla," with its cheeky, alcohol-referencing lyrics, is also a standout. The closest thing to "Paper Planes" here, in regards to effortless catchiness, is the endearingly naïve and earnest "Tell Me Why." (If any one song from this album becomes a bonafide smash hit single, it'll be this favorite. My other guess would be the ethereal "Space," whose spacey environment is rudely--and brilliantly--interrupted by cluttered rhythms as soon as the listener becomes a bit too comfortable. "XXXO," the first official single, also has some pop appeal.) And two of the bonus tracks, the scatterbrained "Internet Connection" and the soothing, R&B-like "Caps Lock, (along with the awesome lenticular album cover), prove to be highlights and reason enough to choose the deluxe edition over the slightly cheaper standard edition.
The production on this album, handled by M.I.A. and the likes of Rusko, Switch and Blaqstaar, is simpler and more rough-around-the-edges than her past two efforts, and is much more concerned with electronic music, the internet and America, in contrast to the world travels that inspired Maya's previous world music melting pot of an album. This may turn some people off, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. It's not as complex, layered, or textured as Arular or especially Kala, but there are still some extremely intrepid moments here, like the playground of sound Rusko builds at the end of--and throughout--"Teqkilla" and the many interest ways Maya uses auto-tune, not just to enhance her voice, but moreover, to add interesting distortion and nuance., among other aural experiments heard on this record.
To put it simply, /\/\/\Y/\ is not as polished or complex as her two previous classic, five-star albums. So is it a failure in regards to living up to the utter brilliance of her past efforts? I suppose, if you must look at it in this light. But is it a failure in regards to creating a still great, homogenous, and exciting album? Absolutely not.
This will end up being a polarizing album, for sure. Critics like Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, and Time Magazine have already indicated that they have no clue what to make of it. But part of me thinks Maya wants it this way. Maybe this will, in one fell swoop, alienate and eradicate all the Lynn Hirschbergs in her fanbase, who don't want to see her progress, challenge herself, or leave the box they've put her in. Let's just hope she doesn't post all of their cell phone numbers on Twitter!