I have a theory about M.I.A.’s new album. This was supposed to be her version of “OK Computer” – or at least, that is what it started out as. She sat there heavily pregnant, so the story goes, unable/unwilling to do anything but sit on the Internet and explore. Naturally, she stumbled upon a whole bunch of weird shit on the web. Then she had the baby, begat to the heir of a billion dollar fortune, and probably thought about what an extreme world this child was being born into. The Internet has in a very short space of time taken over aspects of our lives completely and relentlessly – much in the way that Radiohead’s masterpiece predicted. Yet, whilst their album used robotic voices, industrial sounds and digital effects too, they were all there in order to isolate a real voice, to humanise the plight of man against his own invention. Thus, part of the problem with this LP is that she runs away from commitment – to the music, the concept or the challenge of connecting with a wider audience. Either that, or she simply doesn’t know how to carry the concept out. But eventually, listening to “Maya” unearths other redeeming qualities â€“ weâ€™re just not so used to hearing them from M.I.A.
There was a cracking song by the Cardigans called “Disconnect.” In many ways, “Maya” (I don’t know how to do all that typographical shit, sorry) seems to have a similar ambition. The killer line from that chorus was: “If this is communication, then I disconnect.” It was a clever, innovative way of highlighting the difference between connection and communication within a relationship. Whilst many people have straight up trashed “Maya,” most have done so without identifying a framework. Once you understand the concept of the album, it comes across as less random, even if there is a substantial amount of open text. We start on a journey through America, the Internet, clubs and so onâ€¦ Essentially her twists on standard subject matter: “Stepping Up” is an updated club banger that successfully uses Auto Tune and a plethora of sounds effects to channel the current trends into her own style; “XXXO” had opinion split, but it was simply her way of saying that she wasn’t going to follow trends (in the way that so many ape Lady Gaga), and the melodies are absolutely killer; “Teqkilla” could almost be interpreted as a slight on the typical hip hop weed/alcohol track, yet whatever it may be, I canâ€™t for the life of me understand why it clocks in at over six minutes. “Lovalot” is a dig at either Islamic terrorists, or panic-spreading governments â€“ depending on your own viewpoint â€“ but it is perhaps, also, the ramblings of paranoid chat-room goers, continuing with the Internet theme of the album. The bizarre “Story to Be Told” may be talking about Maya herself, but it could just be talking about the net giving everyone a voice through blogs, vlogs, Twitter and such â€“ whether it is an illegal immigrant, an Iranian student or a bored housewife, people just want the chance to tell their tale. Hell, even my Dad just started a blog â€“ M.I.A. is pretty spot on here (if we take the more open interpretation).
“It Takes a Muscle” is a wafer-thin dub joint, catchy as hell but perhaps a touch too lightweight for the radio (sonically, it probably wouldnâ€™t have made it onto Major Lazer); and “It Iz What It Iz” iz a deliberately discordant stadium anthem that will never make it to the stadium (thanks again to the beat), although it is uniquely intriguing. “Born Free” is a brilliant, barnstorming entry into her singles catalogue. Springsteenâ€™s “Born in the USA” became twisted parody of his original intention, but there is little chance of that happening here, with venom and open contempt the order of the day. M.I.A. is saying here that the much-heralded America being the land of the free is bullshit, and she is going to try and make sure her baby really is born “free.” A slightly wasted opportunity follows with “Meds and Feds” â€“ although it will probably sound better live than on wax, twisting the simplistic guitar riff with an overly eager kick. Personally, the Sleigh Bells LP didnâ€™t grab me, even if I thought it impressive, and the penultimate song actually sounds even more like them: “Tell Me Why” is a watered down “Paper Planes” variant with a brilliant chorus and quite atrocious verses. It is “that generic telecommunications advert song” and although it has potential, the chorus is unable to carry the entire song. Finally, “Space” closes the album off, in the kind of calm and serene way weâ€™re really not used to hearing from Maya Arulpragasam, as she cuts off from everything. Could this be the last we hear from her? I successfully predicted the title of the album, and a hunch tells me that this might be her curtain call â€“ that hunger just isnâ€™t quite as keen anymore, and only a handful of songs really feel like M.I.A. herself truly took the reigns (e.g. “Born Free” and “Lovalot”).
This is destined to be an extremely divisive album â€“ I seem to be saying that about a lot of big releases recently, but there are clearly shifting sands underneath the music industry. “Maya” has the feel of Kanye Westâ€™s last two albums, insofar as great concepts that either werenâ€™t seen through from start to finish (“Graduation”) or songs that feel too rushed (“808s & Heartbreaks”). Yet, once you understand that framework, it can be placed under a more forgiving light. It is a journey OUT of Internet paranoia, the alluring and addictive gloss of that screen welcoming you into a world without responsibilities or evidence, and back into reality. It travels through love, conspiracy theories, getting drunk with your mates and posting inadvisable photos/status updates via your iPhone, blogs, giving birth, trying to escape authority through rebellion, always being connected, and finally cutting the power so you can switch off from the persistent din/information overload of everyday life in 2010. Thatâ€™s an awful lot to take on in 12 tracks, and thatâ€™s probably why the album veers off course at times. But there are still many positives, and this is in no way the train wreck that certain doubters would have you believe. That shitty leaked version did no favours, and although the sonic crispness of “Kala” isnâ€™t present â€“ “Maya” is certainly inferior in that respect â€“ it just means this comes across as a more “normal” album (in the loosest terms possible).
I watched “Easy Rider” for the first time yesterday – one of those films I was convinced I’d already seen, but hadn’t. It is truly iconic (not that it requires me to say that, of course), encapsulating key elements of a particular era. In the film, the two bikers are trying to attain “freedom” â€“ whatever that means. “Maya” feels like the M.I.A. version of it in certain respects. Whilst on her debut, she was a London girl calling out to the rest of the world, and on “Kala” she travelled it, “Maya” feels like a critique of America, and a wake-up call to society (more so the online community) to stop hiding behind screens and realise we are all the same. It may be due to her having had a baby, realising that there is a major difference between connection and communication, or just having grown up a bit, but she is trying to expand her horizons. Away from the conceptual slant, there are challenging issues. I’ll always remember one of her interviews where she explained why she got signed in the States: “I think Jimmy Iovine heard the album and went ‘Oh my God, she’s got the BEATS!'”
Unfortunately, M.I.A. is an artist that pushes occasionally clever sound bites over BEATS, monster ones. Take those blitzkrieg instrumentals away and you’re left with “Like Obama needs to love up Chen” over dead air – it’s just not quite there. Left at that, it would leave “Maya” to be an interesting transitional phase, but by no means essential listening. However, fortunately, M.I.A. has discovered the joy of melody, meaning that many of these songs will worm their way into your brain, and you will find them difficult to dislodge. Favouring melody over raucous beats is a risky strategy, but she just about pulls it off. Just because that isnâ€™t the modus operandi of Diplo, it doesnâ€™t invalidate “Maya.” This is no classic, but it is mad decent, and certainly no “turd.” If this is the last album from Maya, before she is holed up behind a wall of YouTube videos, it seems like the most fitting way for her to switch off â€“ before, she was coming back with “power, power” but on “Maya” she is slowly powering down.