“If you wanna be me you need a manifesto”
Does everyone remember Kala, M.I.A’s real critical breakthrough album, and the reason the radio knows her name? That’s “Bird Flu”, “Jimmy” and, of course, “Paper Planes“, if you need a refresher. And do you remember her manifesto, her clear artistic direction? That fusion of eastern and western musical influences, the bhangra breakdowns and sudden disco flourishes that, at times, rendered her music breathlessly novel to the same western audiences she relentlessly politically criticized (and simultaneously courted)? Of course we do – it’s the reason she’s successfully garnered enough attention to appear at the Super Bowl the same year she decided to flip off the Super Bowl. We loved M.I.A. for that one, right? We loved M.I.A. because she was pop and punk; catchy enough to dance to, controversial enough to appreciate intellectually and Hip-Hop fresh enough to maintain her superiority in both fields. That’s why it’s so damn frustrating, several years later, to watch that artistic focus fade gradually into oblivion. Through some perversion of logic, her music is growing less culturally aware and mature with age, to the point that we get this thing: Matangi, or as we can charitably call it “Not /\/\ /\ Y /\, Right?”
There’s nothing fun about coming down on M.I.A., trust me. But where we once got Kala, her effortless cultural pastiche hip-hop-dance-record-thing – the one where she managed to criticize international crime by posing as an international credit-card fraudster and having us all memorize the lyrics – here the political angle is sanded down to near-inanity. “Boom Skit” is the most politically incendiary thing here, shouting out North American passive anti “brown girl” racism the way it does, and that’s commendable! We don’t like racism, we can all generally agree that racism is some crap and ought to be avoided. “Okay, great, what else?” we’re inclined to ask, and Matangi has frustratingly little to say in addition. Perhaps the fact is simply that a large majority of the educated music-listening populace is post-racism at this point (and let’s face it, it’s not), but that doesn’t change the fact that her messages here largely lack any sort of poignant argument, when there’s an argument at all. And maybe there doesn’t have to be one! But on an album whose major hit – “Bad Girls” – features a fantastic video slamming anti-female-driving laws in the Middle East, we’re allowed to expect a greater level of actual political engagement within the lyricism, which simply never appears. Certainly she name drops plenty of countries to establish her international cred (that’s “Matangi”) reasserts her bad-assery with a decade’s worth of apparently Julian-Assange-approved ‘tent’ puns (“aTENTion”, sigh) and criticizes a lack of western self-reinvention via the world’s final Y.O.L.O. joke (on “Y.A.L.A.”, somehow), and all of that is interesting in its own way, but this is M.I.A., man! We’ve earned the right to expect more, and if she really feels like dropping an album largely devoid of political interest, we can at least expect fantastic songwriting and performance to carry us through, right?
Remarkably, even in all its frenetic genre-gymnastics and cross-cultural musical exchanges (and yes, there are plenty), Matangi still evades any sort of easy purchase for the listener. Naturally, the album varies: “Bad Girls” is as fantastic as it was, uh, last year, “Bring the Noize” is a legitimately fantastic strobing slap in the face, and “aTENTion” manages to sound like gladOS rapping, but there’s so little else to differentiate tracks musically that I find myself struggling to go back and recall each one’s name, never mind its lyricism – and it’s important to remember that M.I.A. is a rapper. “Matangi” is neat initially, but bears an unfortunate similarity to “Boyz” off Kala, and much of the rap in its latter movement is groan-inducing. “Come Walk With Me” will get stuck in your head for all the wrong reasons, and its first half is exactly the worst sort of laser-focused lovey pop we try to avoid from M.I.A.. Its last half is, bewilderingly, hardstyle that samples… a truck backing up and the Macbook volume-indicator. “aTENTion” is grammatically insufferable and rhythmically aimless, and was apparently co-written by Julian Assange following a particularly exciting google search on homophones. Some tracks, like the “Only 1 U” (which sadly feels longer than it is) and the staggering 10 combined minutes of “Exodus” (suitably epic, the first listen) and “Sexodus” (mystifying in its presence), are gratuitously repetitive and aimless enough to be painful on repeat listens. And perhaps I’ve mistaken myself in that last paragraph and there are a ton of clever political allusions throughout Matangi: the key issue quickly becomes that the album does nothing to endear itself aside from singles “Bad Girls” and “Bring the Noize”. If there are politics in here beyond the bluntly obvious, several listens simply aren’t bringing them to the fore. So much of Matangi feels rushed, and despite some fantastic production work – bhangra-core isn’t growing old any time soon – M.I.A. rarely makes any real impression at all, lyrically or vocally. As a case in point, one of the only strong melodies on the album I can recall offhand occurs on the Weeknd-waste “Exodus”… and even then, only because she sings it again as “Sexodus” half an hour later.
So does Matangi have an ace in the hole? It does, insofar as much of the production is brilliant: “Only 1 U” might be forgettable lyrically, but its the boom of its heavy beat and ritual chime, electric zap and plethora of other seemingly-random samples do much to endear it aurally. “Bad Girls” runs on a combination of bhangra beats, plucked strings, and a slithering club chant that’s nigh-impossible not to dig. “Bring the Noize” is simply a blast, and even “Matangi”s percussive ‘Matangi’ sampled choruses are fun and appropriately, excitingly foreign. “Lights”, to its credit, has some fun vocal harmonies going on, and some clever lyrical turns. Every track on the album jumps sporadically between production styles, beat constructions, traditional instruments and glitchy connections – and all of that is great because no one has managed to steal this from M.I.A. just yet. Even Matangi‘s handful of slow tracks manage to feel suitably heavy – even if they fail to differentiate noticeably from one another. The issue isn’t that M.I.A. can’t write songs – she clearly can, and we’ve seen her do it successfully dozens of times before. Matangi suffers from a distinct lack of direction – and if her intended direction legitimately was “unfocused, overwhelming confusion” we have much bigger problems to discuss.
Matangi is, apparently by design, a dense and frequently frustrating listen. It’s certainly concentrated, despite running 15 tracks, and any extended listening period is appropriately exhausting. That said, Kala by its novelty was exhausting too, and managed to be exhausting without feeling stretched out, rushed or samey. Matangi suffers from all of this. Tracks fail to make individual impressions, and while beat production is often brilliant, vocal production is often shrill and irritating (instead of the no-doubt intended percussive). The Weeknd shows up for some reason and fails to utter words. This album is a full 15 tracks in length, and I can only name about 5 after roughly 5 listens. So while Matangi is no doubt novel, it also utterly fails to make an impression beyond acting as an appendage to M.I.A.’s discography. Yes it’s there, but we know she’s capable of so much better. M.I.A.’s brilliant, she can do it, and her fans deserve it. So let’s rewind to ‘better‘ until Matangi is as forgotten as /\/\ /\ Y /\.
Or, sigh, Vicki Leekx.
Published right here, December 2013.