Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam has carved quite the niche for herself, and despite threats of retirement, her third album Maya / ///Y/ places her career at a crossroads. When M.I.A.’s debut album Arular dropped, the Electro-Dancehall infused introduction captivated the world mainly based upon its surface level weirdness. The Sri Lankan siren, bred by a Tamil revolutionary in the midst of a civil war, began using music as her podium to exercise her thoughts on her country’s political situation. The response was divided – some were drawn to her use of vivid colors and sounds, while others absorbed the messages woven into her electronic fabric.
M.I.A. gave it another go ‘round with Kala. This time the political undertones were less embedded and more apparent, yet the music leaned on Pop-friendly melodies, delivering the monster hit “Paper Planes” . Hip Hop fell in love with the petite rebel, using a line from “Paper Planes” as the hook for the all-star “Swagger Like Us” with T.I., Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne.
Then a few things happened – Maya became pregnant with the child of Benajmin Brofman (son of Warner CEO Edgar Brofman, Jr.). Their son Ikhyd was practically born on the 2009 Grammy’s stage (a few days later), and her mother Kala (who Maya named her second album after) was not granted entry into the United States to help her care for her newborn child. M.I.A. endured her fair share of visa issues, as a considerable portion of Kala was recorded outside of the States due to her losing access to the country. Couple these events with the Sri Lankan government keeping a close eye on her (phone taps and all that), her distaste for the flesh-eating mainstream, and the existing corroded political landscape and you have her fodder for Maya / ///Y/.
Maya opens with “The Message”, a cautionary tale about the web with tribal drums and foghorns as a male computer voice warns, "The head bone connects to the headphones / The headphones connect to the iPhone / The iPhone connects to the Internet connects to the Google connects to the government." Leading into the dentist drill noises thrust upon “Steppin Up,” M.I.A. raps about hiding money. While there is no track on Maya with the Pop sensibility of “Paper Planes,” there are enough cross-genre cuts to satisfy the mainstream. “Born Free” , the Punk Rock raison d’être, is angst filled with a video that competes with the violence of Helter Skelter. Other tracks like “XXXO” and “Tell Me Why” are more electronic and hip, while the cover of Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle” adds a melodic body to the overtly industrial work. The Deluxe Edition of Maya includes four additional tracks – “Internet Connection”, “Illygirl”, “Believer” (featuring Blaqstarr), and “Caps Lock” – which swing the pendulum to the mainstream, especially with “Caps Lock.”
Maya’s next step after Maya can move in any direction. While her social commentary is stronger than ever (despite remarks from a New York Times writer’s journey into yellow journalism), she has the Pop presence that can keep her afloat. Then of course there’s the Hip Hop angle – with Jay-Z remixing “XXXO” and Nicki Minaj on “Teqkilla” – which M.I.A. can also navigate comfortably.
M.I.A. is our present day riot grrrl – not as vocally adept as other female artists, but painting pictures with her words that speak on a higher plane. Skeptics may chalk Maya up to a cacophonic rant, but those who really listen will appreciate its underlying brilliance. Whether you choose to buy it – both literally and figuratively – is entirely up to you.