M.I.A. gives fresh answers to big questions

Saturday, March 22, 2014

N.E.E.T. Recordings
November 2013

The arrival of a new M.I.A. album is always a thing to behold. Music critics are sure to be polarised, as are the usually ham-fisted attempts to better categorise her work to make it less controversial than it is.

Snide remarks about her latest, Matangi, however, have been relatively muted in the months since its release.

Maybe that's because we’ve had at least an inkling of what the album has in store for some time now. “Bad Girls”, one of  Matangi’s lead singles, first saw the light of day on the  Vicki Leekx  mixtape two years ago.

And much like that mixtape, Matangi plays as one long track, displaying a certain bravado that feels very comfortable; M.I.A. knows how to own the space. It’s a reminder that at its best, her music can feel like an event, a movement almost. That’s a frustratingly rare phenomenon.

And in the title track she’s happy to remind us: “If you’re gonna be me you need a manifesto/If you ain’t got one you better get one presto.”

This, of course, is trademark M.I.A. As are the lyrics to “Boom Skit”; the track ― about a minute and fifteen seconds long ― essentially serves as something of a moral lynch-pin for the album:

Brown girl, brown girl
Turn your shit down
You know America don't wanna hear your sound
Boom boom jungle music
Go back to India
With your crazy shit, you're bombing up the area
Looking through your Instagram
Looking for a pentagram
All I see is poor people, they should be on ghetto-gram
You don't get our underground
Brofest or overground eat ham
Fist pump, even throw your dick around
Yeah you try to stick around
Do you do you bikram?
Let you into Super Bowl, you tried to steal Madonna's crown
What the fuck you on about?
Think about goin’ to France, quelle heure est-il
This ain't time for your terror dance
Eat, pray, love
Spend time in the Ashram
Or I'll drone you
Kony 2012
Now scram!

It’s all here: the weird provocative wordplay and stutter-step delivery, the invocations of globalisation’s refugees, the spiky rebukes to her establishment haters and their ingrained sense of Kipling-esque privilege.

Not to mention the opportunity she takes to flash that famous middle finger yet again at the prudish reactions to her 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

This is one of the characteristics that used to be far more common in music but has been sidelined over the past few decades: the idea that  songs are part of a conversation, with all the specificity that comes with such sharp exchanges of ideas.

When Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the NSA has been spying on literally all of us literally all the time, M.I.A. was rightfully quick to savour an “I told you so” moment at the expense of those critics who called her a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Word is she even got Julian Assange to help out with one of the songs on Matangi.

The NSA revelations, the Arab revolts, Occupy, the huge protests from Turkey to Brazil; all have bolstered and sharpened the basic awareness that there’s an us and a them, and the two are inexorably opposed. If the return of a musical conversation is in the offing, then that conversation is unified by ideas of a very real and never-ending crisis.

These events haven’t proved the tipping point they first seemed, however. Far from it, they’ve left much of the world asking “what’s next?” So it is with an artist like M.I.A.

Radical musicians have long and famously employed non-Western sounds as means to “decolonising music”, and she’s done it in a singularly fascinating way. But what does this mean, when living standards in “First World” countries like Greece and Spain are circling the drain and those closest to redefining their own destinies are found in “developing” nations?

What does it mean that even while the music business persists with the hackneyed, Orientalist concept of “world music”, an artist like M.I.A. can gain wide praise and acclaim?

M.I.A. hasn’t been asking herself these questions per se, but she has been asking existentially-tinged queries related to her own work. In interviews, she’s mentioned the amount of reflection she’s done over the past few years, asking where she and her music fit into this chaotic and often dismal existence.

This push to flip the doom on its head, to create some sense of a future for both herself and her audience, is evident throughout  Matangi. The name of the album itself comes not just from M.I.A.’s namesake ― Mathangi Arulpragasam ― but from the green-skinned Hindu goddess of music and arts.

It’s certainly evident in the opening track “Karmageddon”. “Y.A.L.A.", an open rejection of Canadian rapper Drake’s viral “You Only Live Once” refrain, essentially revolves around the idea that such notions of the future are inescapably real.

M.I.A. responds: “YOLO? I don’t even know anymore/what that even mean though/If you only live once why we keep doing the same shit/Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again/That’s why they invented karma.”

It may be hard for Western listeners to hear this without New Age condescension springing to mind, but key in this passage is the notion that karma is  invented; humans make their circumstances and can unmake them too.

This kind of exploration makes for an album that may not be M.I.A.’s most successful, but is certainly her most self-aware and mature to date. The sampling of bhangra, reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms; again, all the markers are here.

Sonically it’s all been stripped down to within an inch of its life. It’s also used in a notably more restrained way than we’ve previously seen. Previous records have shown M.I.A. to be a specialist in the art of pastiche, but there is more of a centre on Matangi.

There is a sense that even at those moments when an outlier soundwave is thrown in, it knows exactly where it’s landing. On top of this, she’s frequently happy to have a song be little more than a simple beat and her rhymes.

Several songs are just this, particularly the early tracks. In fact, if people only plan to listen to it in passing, or merely as a way to “fill the space”, they’ll discover this album won’t do.

All of this makes Matangi a challenging album to get hooked on; as a collection of songs it demands active engagement over passive consumption. By the time the gaps start to be filled in, if we’ve willingly taken the role of active listener, we’re more involved, almost as if we’ve been allowed to insert ourselves into the empty spaces that populate the first few tracks.

Ultimately, Matangi comes off not just as a negation but a valiant attempt to provide an answer in the affirmative. It is not just a rejection of the “world music” bullshit (which has always been part of M.I.A.’s oeuvre), but an insistence that the myriad genres and styles have lives and paths of their own that bob and weave, intersect and diverge of their own accord.

Certainly M.I.A. is not the only artist who has made this insistence, but with the album’s bar raised by the participation it demands, we’re left with the sense that perhaps we actually have a role in reshaping these sounds and senses. It’s a potent mixture, and one that seems worth deepening.

[Reprinted from Red Wedge magazine.]

From GLW issue 1002