Album review: M.I.A.'s 'Maya,' missing in action

(Chris Pizzello/associated Press)
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By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

M.I.A.'s new album opens with the familiar clickity-clickity of fingertips keystroking a laptop. Then come much scarier monsters: noxious sirens, nail-gun percussion and chainsaw synthesizers intent on cutting your eardrums out of your skull.

The British rapper, tastemaker and provocateur is peddling pop miasma on her third album, "Maya" -- a disorienting mix of industrial clatter and digital slush that makes Public Enemy's revolutionary bombast feel worthy of "Glee." She brings the noise, but only to find herself buried in it.

And it's hard to imagine anything burying Maya Arulpragasam. Since making her debut in 2004 as M.I.A., she's posited herself as the most innovative and dynamic pop star of her generation. Sure, she's a middling rapper and an awful dancer, but she still remains larger than life thanks to curatorial superpowers that border on Warholian. As the Internet continues to metastasize, her music has made our sprawling popscape feel both endlessly thrilling and comfortingly finite, grafting Baltimore club to Bollywood to Brazilian baile funk with a seamless cool.

But where M.I.A.'s first two albums -- 2005's wonderful "Arular" and 2007's masterful "Kala" -- boasted supreme hooks, "Maya" only bares gruesome teeth. It's an album about information-age paranoia with beats that bristle accordingly, and bass lines that ooze like so much oil spillage.

"The Message," the album's opening salvo, follows those aforementioned laptop clicks with a nursery rhyme about Big Brother's digital omnipotence. "Head bone connected to the headphones," a male voice chants. "Headphones connected to the iPhone, iPhone connected to the Internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government."

Then out come the power tools for "Steppin Up," the first of many dismal sonic failures. As drills and power-sanders blast away to an earsplitting death march, the 34-year-old raps in her hallmark deadpan, "M.I.A., you know who I am." She's wrong. The brand-name-dropping M.I.A. we know would have taken the opportunity to shout out Black & Decker.

She provides her own rejoinder with "XXXO," a pop-minded club ditty that offers one of the album's few grabby refrains. "You want me be somebody who I'm really not," she sings, as if responding to the New York Times Magazine profile that recently framed her as a careerist, a gourmet french fry nosher and a sellout. Even if she's all three, that's okay. This is, after all, the era of the confused, conflicted rap star (see: Kanye West's bling guilt, Drake's melancholic materialism, Lil Wayne's unflagging desire to play the guitar).

The goal, though, is to transpose that inner-conflict into compelling pop tunage -- and that's exactly what doesn't happen here. She's pushing the envelope further into the unknown, but there isn't much to sing along to. Which is why the album's best songs are the tender, dreamy baubles that feel so dramatically out of place.

"It Takes a Muscle" is a sugary little swatch of video-game-tinged reggae, in which M.I.A. talks tough. "You're gonna live tomorrow, if you don't die today," she sings, her voice Auto-Tuned into cartoonish shapes. "It takes a muscle to fall in love."

The ethereal backing track of "Tell Me Why" is just as sweet, but lyrically, our hero's jubilance blurs with anger. "I'm throwing up my hands," she sings, "like I'm mad at the ceiling."

But on the album's most disappointing song, she offers a far more distressing gesture: the shrugging of shoulders. Over a frazzled, loping beat, we find one of pop music's most fearless trailblazers singing about playing Nintendo Wii. The song's title says it all: "It Iz What It Iz."

Recommended tracks:

"It Takes a Muscle," "Tell Me Why"

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