Our M.I.A. didn’t undercook her publicity campaign for this, her third album. Fights with Lady Gaga, rages against governments and a music video that was so extreme it was even banned by YouTube all helped to make /\/\ /\ Y /\ (hereby known as “MAYA”)her most publicly anticipated release to date. Actually, it was hard to believe that M.I.A. hadn’t been handed the big success she probably deserved long before this. She wasn’t really noticed until a couple of her songs were featured on “Slumdog Millionaire”. And in some ways it would have all been so much better if we had all fully twigged on to her brilliance before now: the diamond is turning back into carbon.
You only have to look at M.I.A.’s distinctive fashion sense, with clashing prints and colours to understand what must be going on in the musical part of her head. Okay, so we’ve come to expect all manner of styles from her but unlike on KALA where they all seemed to fit perfectly together, here we’re exposed to a wide scattershot of conflicting ideas that are sometimes brilliant and sometimes wide of the mark.
She was promising us a more mature and sophisticated effort, but what that means to us means something completely different to her. On “Stepping Up” she uses the noises of power tools to help her along, although Rusko’s brilliant bass work helps to keep this idea together. “XXXO” is perhaps the best slice of sophistication we get on the whole record: it leaps forward with dancefloor-friendly synths and a commercial vocal on the chorus. It wouldn’t be out of place in any R’n’B dominated chart. Unfortunately “Teqkilla” is a bit like the relative who promises they won’t get drunk at a posh party and then ends up dancing on the bar. It’s clear that Maya was trying to be clever here, mixing puns of alcoholic drinks up with some seriously annoying noise. It’s too bad it didn’t work. It could have been quite interesting.
It’s strange to think that one of the highlights of the album is a track you wouldn’t have even thought was M.I.A. on first listen. “It Takes A Muscle” is a ballad for a lost lover but even though that sounds completely clichéd and wrong, it works incredibly well. Something about hearing M.I.A. in vulnerability mode is quite wonderful. “Meds and Feds” is a collaboration with Sleigh Bells, her incredibly raucous label-mates, and even though you might not have a thing for the screeching of the Bells, you might find yourself liking this track better than anything else on the album.
“MAYA”’s crowning glory though is undoubtedly “Born Free”. It’s powered entirely by a sample of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” but it’s MIA’s brilliantly punky and powerful vocal performance that makes this four-minute-long track seem about half that length. Much of her words are nonsense (although they obviously mean something in her brain) but if you get past that then this could be the best song she’s ever put together.
“MAYA” might be a complete mess in terms of coherently putting some ideas together, or even lyrically for that matter, but there are great songs here, and enough surprises, to keep any fan, old or new, contented.