Review: M.I.A.'s 'Maya' is an unstable, incomplete third outing
More a journal of sketches than a completed artistic work
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On M.I.A.’s “Story to Be Told,” the songwriter repeats over and over, “All I ever wanted was my story to be told.
What that story is on her album “Maya” (or “/\/\/\Y/\” if we’re still doing that) is unclear. This is three in the can for the British-born Sri Lankan, though this effort feels decidedly darker and murkier than “Arular” and “Kala.”
Maybe it’s political? Opener “The Message” rattles off a empty paranoia in a lyrical line that connects your iPod to “the government.” “Lovalot” compares the country to a chicken factory, but essentially leaves that as its bullet-point, without sonically inspiring the listener to think any more on it. Snitty, razzy, bratty and loveable “Born Free” packed more political implications in its video than the words of the track imply.
Maybe it’s an exercise in pop music? “XXXO” is a superb dance jam, doesn’t really let its hair down like those aforementioned bangers did upon first listen. Enjoyable but empty “Teqkilla” sits and waits for someone show up and rap over a placeholder verse (cough cough Nicki Minaj). She promisingly utilizes a sample of “Treats” from Sleigh Bells – the Brooklyn duo signed to her own N.E.E.T. label – but then goes nowhere with it; the result is what sounds like a three-minute-long radio bumper.
Maybe it’s a response to her own crowd-pleasing jams like “Paper Planes” or “Boyz?” With its simple rhyming schemes and sunny dub-step beat, “It Takes a Muscle” sticks out from the sound swamps of “Meds and Feds” or “Teqkilla” in its shocking earnestness. Using auto-tune, Diplo transforms M.I.A.’s caw into a new melodic instrument on solid “Tell Me Why,” the result coming out as a nursery rhyme played over a military march. “Steppin’ Up” has that same cadence as Britney’s “3,” the cold beat comprising of the sound of power tools and air brakes instead of synths and drum machines.
Maybe it's all of those things. If it is, it's a mess, and not a mess in the way that made me like M.I.A. to begin with.
On the whole, “Maya” sounds mostly like a series of sketches with some flashes of inspiration and aggression. M.I.A. tries too hard to prove herself as a singer – something’s she’s not – when she should probably just earn and enjoy her place among great non-singers (like Kurt Cobain, Jay-Z and Patti Smith). Her self-conscious “messaging” gets mixed in with some icky-stick rub-a-dub-dubbing silliness and it lessens the lessons, whatever they are. It’s the sound of her re-inventing her sound, but out of defensive strategy rather than a natural artistic progression. It's a mess. Perhaps she’ll be more fun in the next version of herself.