Whether it’s a public beef with Diplo or tweeting the personal cell phone number of New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg, M.I.A. has made a lucrative career out of being a successful whippersnapper (not everyone gets to play the Superbowl half-time show you know, M.I.A., fingers and Bruce crotch slides aside).
So integral has her bad-ish girl stature become that apparently her new album, Matangi, was held up by the label for being “too positive,” to which she responded by not-playing nice and threatening to leak the record. So yes, M.I.A. takes shots at anyone around her, in a no-bullshit manner concerning her label and her peers alike. But it’s something that successfully keeps her fans and critics on breathless edge.
So now that the album’s officially out and real/concocted hype is set, how’s the music? Y.A.L.A. both mocks and riffs Drake’s 2011 track The Motto and the the subsequently grating “YOLO” culture. She doesn’t bring up much beyond what a stoned 16-year-old would observe: “If you only live once, why we keep doing the same shit?” The beat is catchy and infectious as any hit M.I.A. song, but staring down 2014, does anyone care about that lyrical dis? YOLO is now universally mocked. M.I.A. isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know, she’s just reminding us of the mass cultural ephemera we’d like to forget, if we haven’t forgotten it already. And it’s not the only track that feels dusty. Mid-album jingle Boom Skit might have been a great get-down dancehall track, yet the the pop culture references stuffed inside each punctuated beat—KONY 2012, Eat Pray Love, “You tried to steal Madonna’s crown”—are already passé. And it’s barely over a minute long. That’s a pretty swift dance.
Come Walk With Me has an earnest and compelling vocal-driven opening and a speedy beat, but it’s strengths end there. It quickly morphs into a slightly schizophrenic track that changes styles and tempos half a dozen times and features an ostentatious wobble bass that had already hit its critical mass with the 2010 spread of bro-step (ironically, M.I.A. calls out the bro-fests on Boom Skit). Mantangi‘s other high notes? It does feature last year’s political earworm Bad Girls, hands-down the top track on the album. The Hit-Boy produced Warriors is one of the album’s better tracks as well, along with the calming R&B-licked pieces Exodus and Sexodus, two tracks that feature the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye.
After massive tracks like Galang and Paper Planes, it might be worth acknowledging that M.I.A.’s power is in big dance singles, but here she shows the opposite: Matangi‘s top moments aren’t riddled with thumping bass or explosive mania. They are steady builds, relatively simple and not of a too specific trend moment, plus they have feeling. Matangi‘s fault isn’t positivity, the fun and fancy-free attitude or its explosions of color and sparkle, like an audible Blingee. But also like an audible Blingee, it’s dated. It’s an au courant conundrum of modern dance-pop: ammassing producers, remixing constantly, while touring and making requisite viral-grasping video clips in between means your next album might come out three years later. And that can make many pop culture references you work into your tunes over time suddenly appear kitschy. Our world spins out so quickly that, while we wait, after a brief moment of fun deja vous, it’s just irrelevant.