If there’s one thing to say about M.I.A, it’s that she knows how to push an aesthetic: third-trimester Grammy performances, Twitter hijacks, juvenile scraps with old-media journalists and /\/\/\Y/\’s militantly gauche visual promotion featuring ‘radical’ lenticular images and messy album art depicting her peering out from behind a wave of corrupted video bars. You’d be hard pushed to find a more crudely confrontational statement of intent in pop music. A decent tip for those wanting to challenge that statement would be to scope out her previous two records that took little care in playing with revolutionary politics, symbols of warfare and, most indecently, abundant fractal designs.
She gets away with it because it’s all inseparable from her personality. M.I.A is her message and often her message is M.I.A. The vulgar first-world revolutionary spirit is a consequence of her childhood, the ability to earnestly namedrop Reebok and the P.L.O in the same song a result of an uprooted adolescence and, with /\/\/\Y/\, the confused, provoking nature the product of an artist trying to remain relevant with a millionaire boyfriend, child and Paper Planes around her neck.
Arular and Kala were both confrontational albums, too. They both urged you to hate M.I.A but you ended up falling in love. What makes /\/\/\Y/ \ exceptional is how hard it tries. The fine lines between militant and irritating; polemical and inane; forward-thinking and obscene have rarely been broken as often as they are here. MAYA is the bratty third child who, resigned that it’ll never achieve the critical acclaim of the eldest or best commercial success of the middle, goes rogue, drinks lots of spirits, smokes a lot of weed and takes a transparently dilettante interest in extremist politics to out contentious its elder siblings.
M.I.A has never been the most lucidly minded ideologue, but she stuck to her guns and the productions her slender voice flowed over were kind to her. The shtick worked best when kept brief; illusive rather than illustrative. The production of clattering magazine discharges, ‘oriental’ dialects, chunky tribal beats and baile funk rhythms juxtaposed with a shiny, western pop sensibility was a dazzlingly example of ‘show don’t tell’ with her own first-world revolutionary narrative. The landscapes of her songs said everything about where she was coming from on Arular or Kala before she even arrived in them. Here, she’s left floundering and her meandering voice too repeatedly reaches out to be provocative and current; where the Tamil Tigers and Reebok Classics feel historicized, beyond or past topical, Twitter, iPhones and Obama don’t. She often has something pityingly unhip – almost mum like – about her when she namedrops these late 00s signifiers. Like, yeah, this stuff has happened – where have you been?
In chasing her own half-formed idea of what the zeitgeist is to be shocking with she hits a lot of bum themes lyrically which are exaggerated by the album’s preoccupation with also presenting a musical zeitgeist of sorts, too – most notably represented by the inclusion of Rusko. By chasing hot genres like Dubstep the abrasive and cookie-cutter production is without any lead in hit like Jimmy, Paper Planes or even Sunshowers. It’s not a problem on its own but /\/\/\Y/\’s well of quality songs is pretty shallow so as a listener you’re left wondering what was the point of your investment. There’s a short-lived thrill in the noise of it all, but the most frustrating thing about this search for a sound that matches the militancy of M.I.A’s lyrics is that the brash homespun beats on her earlier works already had this organised chaos down.
Consequently, the absence of melody draws the attention more focusedly on the lyrics; inbetween the shrieks of a drill you catch the tail ends of political rants even the most outspoken campus politician would cringe at – mostly aimed at ‘the Government’, which never carries the Orwellian tones desired. Tact and nuance were never M.I.A’s strongpoint, but here lyrics are indulged for rhyme rather than reason which delivers lines that force the right images into mind (Like a hand-me-down sucker throwin’ bombs out at Mecca) but mean little when scrutinised.
Appropriately for an artist who invests so much of herself into her music, the best use of her voice has been to employ it as another instrument – whether that be delivering a insistent call to arms or maxim, hollering a wordless hook or captured, sampled and propelled back and forth like those lenticular images. The best M.I.A songs feature little of M.I.A’s voice in a conventional sense. When given the opportunity to over enunciate her politics, she loses all musicality, all sense. /\/\/\Y/\’s attempts to be a zeitgeist-capturing call to arms against the government, The Internet – or both – falls apart most notably when M.I.A adds too much to the conversation.
The album isn’t all failure; there are examples of this tactic being successfully employed on /\/\/\Y/\. Story To Be Told is a mid-album highlight that features an arresting vocal sample that trembles between sub-atomic bass trills; Meds and Feds stomps along on crunching bass hits and slabs of guitar sampled from Sleigh Bells whilst M.I.A keeps her verse vocals short and deliberate before launching into a chorus of processed vocals that eventually overlap and meld into an hypnotic rhythm of syllables which interlock with those uncompromising bass hits and crunchy, sampled handclaps to form an unrelenting, irresistible mess of sound which probably comes closest to achieving /\/\/\Y/\’s mission statement of capturing chaos in music.
A handful of other tracks feature enough promise that an enterprising remixer might salvage something from them – perhaps Diplo might reveal a director’s cut, but as is it stands, /\/\/\Y/ \is a mess of ill-convinced and half-executed ideas and a capitulation to the pressures of her previous successes. Whilst the savage critical mauling she’s received from certain sections has been just as much about M.I.A as an icon than /\/\/\Y/\ as an album, it’s hard to really feel much sympathy in this instance. The album’s a way below-par stumble. She’s done more damage to herself that the truffle fries ever did.