Whether or not one likes M.I.A.’s latest album, “Matangi,” is almost wholly dependent on whether or not one liked M.I.A. prior to the release of her fourth album, which is now streaming on YouTube and releases in stores Tuesday.
If M.I.A. was hoping to make a departure from the image she has become associated with, as she indicates in the lyrics of the album’s opening track, “Karmageddon,” (“Things do change and change can have range/System shouldn’t operate by sticking me in a cage”), “Matangi” is certainly not the departure she was looking for.
The album marks much of a return to the sound of her first two albums, dripping with beats, instrumentation and guttural vocalizations from the Indian subcontinent that are forcefully wedged in to create a sense of exoticism and eroticism, after her experimental “Maya” in 2010 drew mixed reaction from critics.
In interviews preceding the album’s release, M.I.A. publicly called the album a “f— you” to critics, but perhaps, what “Matangi,” an album named after a Tantric version of a Hindu goddess, exudes, in essence, is an exercise in identity politics.
After all, what should a U.K.-born female rapper of Sri Lankan descent with a birth name of Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, who is nearing the age of 40 and looking to stay relevant with a mainstream audience in the U.S., sound like?
In the aftermath of “Paper Planes” from her 2007 sophomore album, “Kala,” M.I.A. rocketed in popularity, perhaps peaking with her Super Bowl performance, and has since become a mainstream-palatable face of anything anti-establishment, recently having WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange open a New York performance for her, Skyping in from London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
M.I.A. walks on eggshells in attempting to appeal to the masses as the leader of pariahs everywhere for every cause, and her latest album is the yolky mess we’re left with.
While “Paper Planes” and many of her tracks from previous albums offered astute critiques on the state of capitalism, materialism and global power struggles in Western societies, “Matangi,” as an album, seems to be the Bud Light of lyrics.
The album-titled track “Matangi,” is either a homage to Pitbull, or a demonstration of the artist’s geographical competency in its endless recitation of country names to the backdrop of Hindu temple tabla beats and shrieks that seemingly carry little meaning.
The lyrics to “Come Walk with Me,” perhaps the most experimental track of the album, which demonstrates M.I.A’s distinct vocal timbre, Auto-Tune and of course, the standard Indo-infused, peppy-pop beats, barely scratch the surface of anything remotely meaningful. The song falls back on the cringe-inducing lyric of every fight-the-man song: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” The song seems like it was written to enter Top 40 radio markets.
But the image that M.I.A. has either skillfully tried to concoct for herself or that has been forced upon her, is perhaps best demonstrated in the track, “Bad Girls,” which was released a year prior to the rest of the album.
M.I.A. wants us to know she’s a “bad girl” who owns her sexual identity, and in the music video, we see the artist standing atop a sideways moving vehicle, filing her nails and swiveling her hips, in presumably, a country in which women are not allowed to drive, as she passes sand dunes and fully-covered men in long robes and scarves, asking if she can “take (them) to bed.”
In “Only 1 U,” a clumsy mash-up of cacophonous noises that perhaps answers Ylvis’s rhetorical question of “What Does the Fox Say?” M.I.A. tells us “Lara Croft is soft when it comes my stuff/She’s made up, I’m real/
I’m a lady of rage,” without ever really exploring the source of any of this rage.
The rage, however, is quite understandable.
As the daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, who trained with Palestinian Fatah militants and was active in an uprising against the Sri Lankan government to the point where his wife and children sought asylum in the U.K., much of M.I.A.’s commentary on rebellion and social change is heartfelt and genuine.
In recent years, M.I.A. has found herself unable to leave the U.S., after a restraining order from her ex-fiance, who descends from one of New York’s wealthiest families, and an embittered custody battle over her four-year-old son.
But M.I.A. as a story, is perhaps more appealing than her music.
The hardcore image she tries hard to push is trite, and perhaps most disappointing is the capitalization and commoditization of exoticism – songs are not made more interesting or sexy by their “foreignness,” and if anyone should know this, it is M.I.A, who has used this crutch since her early videos, such as “Jimmy” and “Galang.”
As seen in the lyric video for “Come Walk with Me,” with CGI-animated Hindu gods and elephants, or in “Warriors,” with lyrics like “we’ll put them in a trance -Ommmm” or “I don’t speak a-English,” it appears that M.I.A. is perhaps aware of the message she is sending but chooses to use it to gain widespread popularity.
But perhaps the pedestal she has been placed on as the face of resistance movements, the face of minority, female rap artists and the face of anyone looking to break into mainstream music has set her up for disappointment, and perhaps she warned of this in “Karmageddon,” in which she told critics and fans, she “Ain’t Dalai Lama/Ain’t Sai Baba/My words are my armor and you’re about to meet your karma.”