Monday, September 6, 2010

M.I.A. is missing in action on latest effort

Genre: Electronic/Dance
Interscope Records
Running Time: 41:42

In the latter parts of the last decade, Maya Arulgrapasm, better known as M.I.A., was establishing herself as one of the most exciting and exhilarating new artists in music.

As the British born daughter of Sri Lankan refugees, Maya had a way of connecting two vastly different cultures and brought a bit of eastern flair to her exotic electro-hip hop tinged compositions. Helped out by her appearance on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, her single “Paper Planes” became a smash hit and lifted Arulpragasm to superstardom.

With the release of her new album, /\/\ /\ Y /\, in July, expectations were high. However, this time around it seems like she’s gone from being a bamboo banga to a club banga. Perhaps spurred by her recent entry into the spotlight, M.I.A. goes for more of a mainstream approach here and strips away almost everything that made her previous releases so intoxicating. It’s a disappointing dropoff from an artist who had shown so much zest and creativity up to this point.

On her previous albums, 2005’s Arular and 2007’s Kala, Maya established three traits that made her great. She effortlessly mixed a hip-hop/rap style with wild electro dance music and paired it with exotic tribal beats. It created a sound kaleidoscope that was both alluring and intoxicating. The political overtones served as the cherry on top.

On her latest record, /\/\ /\ Y /\, Ms. Arulpragasm has abandoned almost everything that made her a success up to this point. The tribal element is totally gone. The hip-hop stylings are virtually nil. What does that leave you with? The sound kaleidoscope is still there, but the soul is stripped out. And as for Ms. Arulpragasm herself, the poor girl is so washed out in a myriad of vocal effects that it’s a crying shame.

That brings me to another point that made up M.I.A.’s appeal – her charm. Maya was never a fantastic rapper from a technical standpoint, but she had a certain girly/Londoner charm that made up for it. Take a song like Hussel from the Kala album. Her flow on the rap part is totally cheesy, but also infectious.

On Mango Pickle, she’s telling us about how much she likes fish and mango pickle, and how she had to leave town because she couldn’t pay rent. Not exactly Illmatic, but the lyrics have a charm because she’s putting herself out there, and you can connect with it. Expect none of this on Maya. This time around it seems she’s aiming for more of a club appeal, evidenced by the fact that half her song titles are now written in txt talk – It Iz What it Iz, Teqkilla, and XXXO.

Given this, you might think she’d just drop her political act, but apparently she thinks the political diatribes and her tekquila binges can go hand in hand. It comes off hiralously. In her liner notes, she even brags about talking to the FBI, CIA, and Chinese Government on AIM. When she’s on there they probably think they’re talking to Ke$ha.

The first song following a brief intro is “Steppin Up,” which features the sound of a power drill along with other electronic effects. It isn’t bad, but lacks the addictive creative qualities that made her last album a hit. This leads into XXXO, which actually is one of the few standouts on this record. It starts off slow, but the spiraling melody in the chorus backed by a wall of shiny synthesizer beats make this track a gem.

The only other major standout to be found is in the lead single, “Born Free.” I’ve been skeptical of all the different effects put on Maya’s vocals on this album, but I have to admit that this is one place where the effects actually work to some degree. The echo on Maya’s voice creates a very ominous feeling that is effective in setting the mood for the song.

It’s also propelled by a buzzing bassline that reminds me of Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” on steroids. There’s also a great drum track that grabs your attention. Lyrically, Maya goes for more of her political bent, declaring that she’s got something to say. Although you never really find out what that is.

Most of the remaining tracks slog by at a pretty brisk pace without ever leaving much of an impression. Lovalot has some low key hip hop going on and it’s pretty chill until you get to the chorus. There’s some funky beats that clash with the rest of the song; so much so to the point where it’s really jarring at first. And the stuttering stop/start effect on Maya’s vocals is really offputting. It sounds like something mixed by an amateur DJ to play at someone’s house party.

“It Takes a Muscle” is an uninspired attempt at a club hit. Tequkilla, an ode to all the different brands of alcohol, may be one of the true low points not just on this album, but of the entire year: “I got some sticky sticky icky ikcy wid!/ I got a shot of tequila in me!” My keyboard died a little inside just from having to type that out.

But still worse is “It Iz What It Iz,” one of the most musically grating and totally frivolous songs I’ve heard in a while. There are a couple tracks near the end where Maya tries to sing, and both tracks have an eastern flavor to their melody. Unfortunately, these tracks expose that Maya isn’t a particularly great singer, and she has trouble carrying the tracks on her own.

Many of the lyrics are pretty hilarious also. On “Tell Me Why” she says, “You can take me courthouse/you can take me jail/you can take me anywhere but/you can’t get me there.” What? In the very same verse, she brags about drinking alcohol and knowing the words to Wonderwall.

As a whole, Maya isn’t a horrible album. The main problem is she’s abandoned what made her great in favor of trying to pull a pop/chic appeal, and it isn’t really flying. At her worst, she captures the most overdone party/club clichĂ©s in the book.

Even the tracks that are somewhat good on this album can’t hold a candle to the creative forces that propelled the Kala album. This album seems like – dare I say it? Maya’s attempt at selling out. I still have faith in Maya, though, and I’m hoping she gets it back together for her next release.

Three Favorite Tracks:

Born Free
Steppin Up

Lyric to Use as Your Facebook Status:
Don't kid yourself, there's nothing here

Score: 52/100

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