Available on: N.E.E.T LP
M.I.A. has described her new album as “schizophrenic”. “Unfocused” would be a more appropriate adjective. As is often the case when underground pioneers begin to have to come to terms with mainstream success, M.I.A’s third album is inward-looking, defensive, and focused on the medium more than the message (the album title is a stylisation of her own name and its stated theme is “information politics”). The catchy but slight (and very Gaga-esque) teaser single ‘XXXO’, with its fixation on the effects of technology on identity (“You want me be somebody who I’m really not”) did nothing to allay fears – exacerbated by the news that /\/\ /\ Y /\ was made at home in L.A. and edited down from hours and hours of recording sessions – that M.I.A.’s first album written since she became a star could match the navel-gazing excesses of ‘Public Image’, De La Soul is Dead or Be Here Now.
Opening prelude ‘The Message’ is the most explicit reference to information politics and exemplifies many of the problems of this album. Texturally it is fascinating, the production bold and dense with detail. Musically, lyrically and politically, however, it is gratingly naive, a rewrite of ‘Dem Bones’ that connects the headbone “to the headphones…to the iPhone.. to the Internet…to the Google…to the government.” ‘Steppin’ Up’ falls into a similar trap as the sonic inventiveness (melding sound of a drill – or is it a chainsaw? – with crunching guitars, killer beats and autotuned vocals) is not matched by the words: a self-aggrandising hip-hop call to arms (“M.I.A. – you know who I am”). Imagine 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ revived by Nine Inch Nails and you’re most of the way there.
‘Teqkilla’ is another frustratingly half-brilliant effort: lyrically, it’s a piece of inconsequential wordplay about the merits of tequila relative to other spirits; musically it’s perhaps the most affecting and inventive track on /\/\ /\ Y /\ as clattering ‘tribal’ drums and whooping analogue synths paint a fourth world industrial picture reminiscent of 23 Skidoo or Miles Davis’s ‘Black Satin’, yet wholly contemporary. Also totally of-the-moment is ‘Story to be Told’, a straight-up dubstep banger (albeit with the sounds of planes, sirens and distorted Bollywood vocals) that should see serious club rotation thanks to Rusko’s involvement.
Between those two tracks sits the jewel in this album’s crown: ‘Lovalot’. Over a sparse yet claustrophobic backing, M.I.A. draws the Taliban and Unicef workers, Hu Jintao and Obama, Bob Marley and Gandhi into a compelling subaltern tale (“They told me this is a free country and now it feels like a chicken factory”) with a chorus that cheekily references Jihadism. It’s pop music at its most challenging and vital, which makes the lack of vitality of much of what follows such a letdown. For a start, pleasant as it is, what on earth is the rationale for the cover version of the cod-reggae ballad ‘It Takes a Muscle’ by early 80s Dutch synth-pop band, Spectral Display? A well-executed but superfluous update of Lovers Rock surely more suited to a Lily Allen album. A second ballad, ‘It Iz What It Iz’, is drifts by dreamily to no great effect before another, slightly jarring shift in mood and tempo.
‘Born Free’ revisits territory first mapped out by Tricky’s ‘Black Steel’ and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine in its grafting of a post-punk / industrial ethic onto a hip-hop template. Yet the initial visceral thrill engendered by the pounding music and rebellious lyrics (“I’ll throw this shit in your face when I see ya, ’cause I’ve got something to say: I was born free”) pales somewhat as the lack of a memorable tune or something more meaningful to say becomes apparent. ‘Meds and Feds’, a collaboration with Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller, is similar lacking in the tune department, instead repeating the line “I just give a damn” over and over against a musical backing that sounds like a punk rock band covering Rotterdam Termination Source. Unfortunately gabba with guitars is more interesting in theory than it actually sounds in practice.
The schizoid nature of /\/\ /\ Y /\ is shown again by the decision to follow ‘Meds and Feds’ with the sucralose sweet ‘Tell me Why’, a pop R&B ballad that feels like a Nicole Scherzinger outtake from the Slumdog Millionaire sessions. A chorus of “tell me why things change but I feel the same / if life is such a game how come people all act the same?” may be profound to 12-year old listeners, but we’ve come to expect more from M.I.A.
The album closes with ‘Space’, an attempt at a “cosmic” ballad in the vein of ‘The Big Wheel’ from Blue Lines or ‘Shine like Stars’ off Screamadelica. Alas the end product is more akin to ‘Across the Universe’ rewritten for Atomic Kitten: a temple made of MDF.
A disappointing end then to a disappointingly patchy album. Nonetheless, M.I.A. remains one of the most exciting and challenging figures in the pop mainstream; let’s hope this unconvincing first attempt to respond to the demands of the mass market is a blip rather than the start of a nose dive.