by Ann Powers
There are so many ways to say “I love you,” and if you’re singing, it can be hard to say anything else. Pop stars are our love machines, expressing desires people are otherwise too uptight or disconnected to put into words.
And women artists can hardly find a way beyond that role. Springsteen sings for the working stiff, and Zack de la Rocha slaughters bulls on parade; but when Lady Gaga crafts a commentary on human trafficking, she still has to call it “Bad Romance.”
So, what if you’re a female artist who puts politics first? And then, what happens when you start to feel the muscle that is your heart?
Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., is in that nearly singular circumstance. The UK-born Sri Lankan war child turned agitprop-loving art-school kid achieved critical success and some popular renown with a global mash-up sound that cast her as ultimate street urchin -- "Robin Hoodrat," as the critic Jessica Hopper called her in her perceptive "/\/\/\Y/\" review.
Spitting slogans and throwing beat bombs, M.I.A. danced like a rapper, not a single lady. Her lyrics trumpeted self-confidence and spoke for others' struggles, rarely dwelling on tender emotions. She always looked great, but never bared too much skin. Her androgynous charisma, in fact, was the source of her breakthrough, when two different films, "Pineapple Express" and "Slumdog Millionaire," used her song "Paper Planes" as background to the antics of delinquent boys.
In the midst of M.I.A.'s rise, though, a couple of things happened: She started her own record label, the Interscope Records imprint N.E.E.T., getting into the music industry in earnest. And she met her future husband Benjamin Brewer, son of Warner Music Group CEO and Seagram's magnate Edgar Bronfman Jr., a guy with a different set of issues than M.I.A. may be used to confronting. The two had a son, Ikhyd, last year.
"/\/\/\Y/\" responds to these changes, and it feels like a serious artist's sometimes tentative but very promising step toward a broader vision of herself. In its 12 tracks, M.I.A. explores both what it means to serve as a sexual/romantic ideal in the Beyonce way, and what happens when a self-consciously political artist like herself confronts the sentimental streak deep within.
To be clear, she's not beating her chest and belting out "My Heart Will Go On." "/\/\/\Y/\" contains plenty of agitprop verses that would have worked on her first two albums, though the music on post-punk attacks such as "Born Free" and "Meds and Feds" (the latter provided by Sleigh Bells board-cruncher Derek E. Miller) spews more shrapnel than ever before. The ugliness of certain songs comes off as a built-in defense against the more conciliatory qualities of other ones; on "Meds and Feds," Miller loops her saying, "I just give a damn," as if other tracks, like the Robyn-ish "XXXO" or the dreamy, Diplo-produced "Tell Me Why," might cause fans to think otherwise.
"XXXO" is actually not about sex, but about the making of a sex symbol, the other matter preoccupying M.I.A. these days. Against a chirpy background of "you want me," she sings in a style not unlike the consciously girlish coo of early 1980s New Wavers, about a seduction that turns out to be artistic, not sensual. The male in the picture is her "Tarantino," less likely a lover than a producer trying to turn her big ideas into something more containable, like a come-on. "I can be that actress," she murmurs. But she really can't. She's all push and pull; like her fellow "post-feminist" art star Karen O, she understands that something's gotta break -- either the role designed for her, or herself.
"XXXO" is not the only case of M.I.A. pulling a switcheroo on a pop template. She's trying to have it both ways -- the virgules that form her name on the cover of "/\/\/\Y/\" are typographical marks used in phrases like "either/or" -- and the effort sometimes feels a little stilted. "Teqkilla" is a party anthem that's as cold as ice in a frozen glass; there's an air of condemnation in the way she talks about sticky weed and wooze-inducing alcohol. (That song is also the only place where she addresses her relationship with the liquor-company heir Brewer, in the line, "When I met Seagram's, sent Chivas down my spine.") "Space" is a chill-out room seduction, but it stays pretty vague, and M.I.A. just can't sing the phrase "You conquer me" convincingly.
What works as well as anything she's ever done is her depiction of the personal as something worth fighting for. "Lovealot" is the album's most powerful jam, inspired by one of those photographs of the battle dead that puts a heartbreaking face on unfathomable terrorist actions. M.I.A. merges her voice with that of the teen bride Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who became a suicide-bomber statistic while avenging the death of her husband. Clipping her boasts, M.I.A. turns a call to action into a scared girl's nervous tic. Synths click out a jittery, jagged background. The song doesn't justify anything, but it reminds us that there is a person behind every lit fuse.
M.I.A. has to realize that she no longer lives in a neighborhood where anybody's hiding an arms cache (no workers of the world, anyway -- though who knows what Brentwood's power brokers keep in their wine cellars). Forging her own relationship with the old slogan, "the personal is political," she sometimes miscalculates the distance between herself and her beloved underclass. Yet what she's experiencing is an absolutely necessary struggle -- an attempt by an artist who's defined herself through opposition to engage with the system that she has entered, for better or worse, and to still remain recognizable to herself.
She's also trying, as a mother and a soon-to-be wife, to relate what she feels as Maya to what she says as M.I.A. The bevy of producers who shaped the soundbeds for the musings of "/\/\/\Y/\" push her sound away from grooves and riddims and toward noise, but the sonic and lyrical allusions to the Twitter lifestyle don't really offer a critique. It's more of an attempt to find the blood within the circuitry. What happens to political fervor when it's turned into chatspeak and hashtags? Does a lullaby still soothe a little boy if it's been refined through Auto-Tune?
One of M.I.A.'s most powerful tools is a voice that never sounds processed, even when it's manipulated and chopped and screwed. When her songs have foregrounded ideas, or the stories of oppressed people she didn't necessarily know, she always remains in the thick of it. On "/\/\/\Y/\," she is trying to stay in the thick of her own life. It turns out to be a struggle worthy of a revolutionary.
-- Ann Powers
Three and a half stars (out of four)