M.I.A. – Matangi

“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 /\.  

C

Or, sigh, Vicki Leekx.

Published right here, December 2013.

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Death Grips – Government Plates

Reviewing Death Grips is really, really difficult.

Well alright, maybe it isn’t difficult, but it might be ridiculous and unnecessary. Any discussion of Death Grips as a musical.. project.. thing is bound to be nested in a description of the sorts of sounds Death Grips actually produce, and an assessment as to whether they’re getting better or worse. You know, like a review – and that’s fine! I like doing reviews! But when it comes down to whether or not I can recommend Death Grips’ new album – the free-online double-entendre Government Plates – it’s largely going to be a factor of whether or not MC Ride, his perma-furious DJ Andy Morin, and drummer Zach Hill are making sequenced sounds you already enjoy, or you know to enjoy because it’s cool to like Death Grips right now, or whether you can appreciate them as an aesthetic entity (if not necessarily a musical one). All three are valid access routes to Death Grips these days, and the band does nothing to dissuade  it – have you seen MC Ride? – and so I feel the necessity to look at the band all three ways, and attempt to parse out what might be going on here musically. Or aesthetically.

That said, this is the MC Ride hype train, and in the spirit of whatever-this-genre-is it feels appropriate to go straight for the throat and get the tl;dr out of the way immediately: Government Plates is a solid addition to the canon. It’s also short, blistering, blood-curdling, increasingly synth-y, sarcastic, free online, unbalanced, and intensely free on the internet. If you’re a fan of these guys, you’ve already bled the MP3’s dry and you’re waiting for your next fix and maybe secretly hoping we can get back to Exmilitary‘s nigh hardcore-punk pacing, lyrical acuity and Vancouver skate-punk music videos (that’d be me). You’d be the ones reading this just to see how I talk my way around having to talk about Death Grips, and checking whether or not my punk cred is going to see any revival after that Lady Gaga review last week. Fair enough! The rest of the review is for anyone else that’s wondering what the hell the deal is, whether or not MC Ride is an MC and therefore this is a rap crew, and why I’m taking so much time getting to the review portion.

This part’s for those people in the latter category.

Wikipedia says “Death Grips is a hip hop group from Sacramento”, which is a charitable and fun way of saying they definitely use beats, and MC Ride’s first name is “MC”. Death Grips cleave closer to something like alternative Hip-Hop attempting to appropriate melodic Industrial while keeping one eye firmly and secretly locked on the club dance floor. At their most accessible (that’d be “I’ve Seen Footage“) they sound like an extremely antagonistic Primal Scream therapy session featuring a Skinny Puppy fan for a DJ and a drummer whose only obvious musical alliance is technical acrobatics. At their least accessible, they sound like someone threw some screws into a washing machine. Along with their pit bull. Sometimes there are guitars; they once let a girl sing. They have trouble showing up to live shows and obeying contracts. One of their album covers is very banned. One Death Grips performance famously consisted of a children’s drum set, their music played through the PA, and a fan’s suicide note. So to say the group values their reputation would be an understatement: they’ve crafted a unique folk appeal by virtue of incredible bizarrity, having no clear musical parallel, and remaining utterly and completely true to their murkily-articulated, libertine philosophy. Fashionable.

So it’s easy to understand why they’ve curried such appeal with their young fan base – MC Ride is fearless, black and coated in arcane symbols and gang signs. His two white accomplices are absurdly talented and musically unheralded in turn. Their music lacks a clear lyrical message beyond rage, paranoia, confusion and isolation – MC Ride doesn’t speak so much as bellow constantly, and his vocal production intentionally obscures  most anything beyond blind, frightening anger at any given moment. They transcend race, they transcend clear imagery or context or politics (beyond, of course, anarchy) – they’re punk as hell, and I’m sure they hate punk music. These boys came out of nowhere, and appropriately they sound like nothing else   – though Yeezus certainly took a shot at it.

Government Plates makes no moves to dislodge Death Grips’ carefully-constructed reputation, though they certainly seem self-aware enough to poke fun at their own superior impulse-control issues (the final track being “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)”). That said, it does push their song construction forward: where previous releases would occasionally deign to hard-rock architecture (The Money Store) or smack of punk (Exmilitary), Government Plates takes Death Grips even further down their own strange road of musical anarchy. Morin’s synthesizers are in full force, several tracks are downright danceable, featuring as close as Death Grips ever come to softer breakdowns (on “Anne Bonny” and the final track). “Feels Like A  Wheel” gave me flashbacks to KMFDM and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult (on guitars, at least). “Birds” even gives us a lurking MC Ride reciting poetry over a shrill, oscillating klaxon, in between drum breakdowns.
MC Ride is more subdued on Government Plates than usual as well, relegated primarily to audio loops with his trademark beatdown-delivery checked for the majority the album’s second half – leaving DJ Morin to take centre stage. He does a respectable job, too, though for many by premise Death Grips’ affinity for unbalanced percussion loops and shrill everything will prove too much within the album’s opening moments. There are fantastic beats here, though – “Big House” is frenetic, bass-heavy and nearly club-ready, “Whatever I Want” has sparkling synths that only serve to unnerve further, “Birds” plays with softer guitar tones in a way Death Grips isn’t yet known for. He’s pushing things forward, certainly, and deserves credit for it.

That said, despite repeated listens Government Plates can’t help but feel somewhat sapped, for me at least. Perhaps this is the result of a couple years of DG fandom (and one insane live show), but the shrill-synth well seems to be running dry for me – and a further focus on that musical direction detracts somewhat from the freneticism that drew me to Death Grips in the first place. In order to stay this angry, you have to keep amped, and if that energy should run out, you need something beneath it. Preferably not, exclusively, sometimes headache-inducing synths (“Birds“). There’s a question of whether or not Death Grips can do this. Government Plates is a solid musical release, absolutely, and a respectable and appropriately-experimental addition to bizarro-Hip-Hop canon, but it fails to energize in the way their previous releases did. Whether this is a result of their growth as a group, a lessening of their rage, or a blossoming maturity remains to be seen. That said, I’m certainly excited to see what comes next as experimentation (or breakup) seems inevitable for the Sacramento trio at this point. Three things are for certain, though: Death Grips will remain an absolute cultural force to their devotees, a literal headache for their detractors, and a fascinating aesthetic exercise in the meanwhile.

B

Reviewed right here, November 2013. 

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Lady Gaga – ARTPOP

 “[Artpop is] a celebration and a poetic musical journey [that displays a] lack of maturity and responsibility” 

No kidding.

So here we are again, it’s always such a pleasure. Remember when we tried to turn to bikes? It’s 2013 and we’re all back in Gaga-town, USA. It’s been a long while, hasn’t it? Years have passed since Lady Gaga pleasantly surprised me with her wackiness and secret identity as an Autobot. I’m not kidding! Born This Way was a cool couple of discs, stretching Gaga’s obsession with leather studs, Meatloaf and Queen into 17 whole tracks of vocal acrobatics, at least one LGBTQ anthem, and incredible bizarrity (“Highway Unicorn“). But of course, it’s Gaga, and so we can’t expect her to do the same thing twice, and she left herself with two clear options: play it safe, or lose her damn mind. It’s a stretch to suggest she’s done both. This is Gaga, though, and she’s getting older, so there are things we get to expect by now: her voice is more distinct than ever, as is her style, and she’s improved as a singer again. Less fortunately, Artpop presents the worrying argument that Born This Way and Fame Monster weren’t her personal touchstones; The Fame was. And that ought to be sort of disappointing, for anyone hoping Freddy Mercury and Meatloaf could be her key muses; The weirder Steph gets the better, the music critic has to say. Fortunately we’re beholden to no such beliefs in the club, but a critical cruise down Artpop‘s logical continuity won’t take us anywhere particularly exciting, despite her artistic aspirations. My Artpop could mean anything, she croons on “Artpop”, ironically one of the album’s weakest cuts. But could it, really? Primarily it seems to mean: 1. I’m cool. 2. I’m secretly not cool (and I know it). 3. I have sex like a wildcat, possibly too often, and 4. I’ve done some drugs in my time. I refuse to interface with Lady Gaga’s claims that Artpop represents a post-Warholian aesthetic, because no one knows what that means. Her grandiose speech is, though, a clue as to what she’s up to here: Artpop, so frequently, is all pomp and no deep statement. This is a shame, if only because Gaga’s quickly becoming the Peter Molyneux of pop music, talking everything up to a ludicrous level to which her products don’t necessarily rise. So when someone like me approaches Artpop, they hope desperately for that flurry of insane artistic activity that Lady Gaga promises every single time she produces an album – and that lyrical ambition simply doesn’t materialize here, however often she intimates it. Oh well. We sigh, that’s fine. It’s synthpop, it’s club-pop, a genre where a lyrical message is often more of a fun bonus than a necessity. Approached on that level, its own level, Artpop is pretty solid! It has to be – this is Lady Gaga, she’s the millennial Queen of this Stuff. So let’s all pay attention like we have to: court is in session.

For everything that’s going to come after, Artpop gets off to a roaring start. Maybe you haven’t seen “Aura”‘s Robert Rodriguez-directed music video yet, or heard Gaga’s Faster-Pussycat whine on track, but it rocks. The flamenco guitars stir up dust, the beat drops like a ton of bricks, Gaga’s hitting peak-weirdo – but of course all of this would happen; Infected Mushroom produced the track. Oh, my bad, INFECTED MUSHROOM: Israeli psytrance pioneers and general symphonic-dance gods. That’s cool and unexpected and ambitious, it’s everything I want from Lady Gaga and none of the filler. That is, until we hit the inevitable ‘Gaga Breakdown’ about 75% in. This part’s important, because it’s going to happen on almost every track here. It’s the bridge, of course: the point that the beat drops out, rises slowly, Lady Gaga stands up from her Salvador Dalí piano and serenades the crowd with her crazy pipes. She can do this! She will do this, but it kills the flow of the track – and it happens on almost every track. To the point that I had to name it, and start pointing it out like a glitch. It’s a nod to pop convention, certainly, but Lady Gaga seems so absurdly past the point of needing to throw back the curtains and wail that it seems unnecessary; not to mention utterly sabotaging the flow of the Mushroom guitarscape she’s coiling across for the rest of the song. (It’s a promo video but whatever; Rodriguez.)

From there, the album’s off at a run and Gaga’s playing bumper-cars with a variety of genres and influences. “Venus” is runway-pop with an obsession with Greek myth (and to her credit, some clever wordplay and Bowie-esque space-travel). “G.U.Y.” Gaga putting her “Poker Face” gender-twist hat back on and having some fun with acronyms and gender dynamics. “Sexxx Dreams” is masturbatory both stylistically and lyrically, and sounds like Justice. “Jewels n’ Drugs” has T.I. in killer shape, Too Short present and, uh, Twista of all people – and the star herself cleanly showing up the rich-bitch competition in the female club-hop department. “Donatella” does this too, so we can ask, fairly, if she’s been listening to The Millionaires at this point (ugh). In fact, as we go on the touchstones become even more obvious: “Manicure” is worryingly similar to a lot of Chantal Claret’s work, specifically “Pop Pop Bang Bang“. “Do What U Want” runs like “Stylo” and features Gaga emphasizing the primacy of her mind and voice over her body… a message that R. Kelly’s slithering feature manages to immediately undercut. Whoops. They come faster from there: “Dope” – Meatloaf, “Fashion” – Bowie, “Mary Jane Holland” and “Artpop” – Gaga, actually, in a fun turn. Her career’s finally reached a length where she can reference her own material and voice, which works to her credit as an evolving artist. “Swine” is an odd moment and her most deprecating, coming off a touch like Depeche Mode might have written the lyrics in a fit of synthy, gothic melancholy. It’s by far her most self-deprecating track and a shockingly cruel one, which also means it comes as a pleasant surprise on an often-innocuous album. “Applause”, of course, is the hit, and largely impervious to the rest of the album’s art direction. It’s also the last track, and hits as a surprise; intentional or otherwise, putting your hit single as the album’s final track always speaks to a certain confidence. Or hubris. Or insecurity.

Is it good? Well yes: like I said, it has to be. “Dope” features Rick Rubin production and a straight-faced acknowledgment of Lady Gaga’s now-renowned drug habits. “Jewels ‘n Drugs”, for all its club-girl goofiness, has a beat like a bejewelled trap hit. “Venus” is a grower, and weird enough to be compelling after “Aura”‘s initial shock wears off. The melodies are strong and the 4-on-the-floor is firmly in check. It’s all danceable, all the production is stellar, Gaga isn’t known for missing notes or wasting an opportunity to stretch her voice. Stretching her voice, specifically, happens a lot here, and it’s Artpop’s only real innovation: anyone looking for Lady Gaga kicking and screaming, laughing and chatting and doing her best Milla Jovovich impression – well all of that happens in the first few tracks here. Born This Way played around with the notion as well, but on Artpop it’s so much more exaggerated. Listen to “Swine” to see what I mean: she growls, squeals and screams throughout the album as well (albeit more subtly) and those moments stand out when placed alongside the calmer slant of “Dope” and much of “Gypsy” toward the end.

Artpop‘s greatest talking-point, though, has been its supposed self-awareness and deprecation. Of course this occurs, it’s all over the place and done to great effect. Should that be surprising, though? Most of those lauded “introspective” tracks fall in the last half, and yes there’s a lot of self-acknowledgment and winking and deprecation going on, and word is all of this is new for Gaga. Um, guys? The Fame. The Fame Monster. Born This Way’s motorcycle-hybrid-sexpot, constant winking humour and religious imagery play. Highway Unicorn. Self-awareness is and has always been Gaga’s major virtue – of course she’s absurdly talented, and her performance capability is beyond criticism at this point. But to suggest she’s only now breaching the topic of her own egoism is absurd. Gaga’s self-awareness is the reason she still has a career, and likely the reason she’s given so much control over her appearance and stage-presence. That’s great! But it certainly isn’t new, and better – even laugh-inducing – examples exist all over the place on Born This Way (“I don’t speak German but I wish I could”).

The problem with a person like me reviewing a girl like Gaga is this: no one’s buying a Gaga album for thematic variety or compelling lyrical structure, let’s face it. Or even if they do, the sequencing is designed to minimize distinction between tracks. No one wants to let the beat drop, and she isn’t writing songs necessarily; she’s crafting house opuses, synthpop jams, Meatloaf-meets-disco hits. And that’s just fine! It also means that for her to do anything but that specific BPM she’s addicted to is often mistaken for experimentation; that’s not what it is. That’s… songwriting. No one can blame Gaga for playing it safe, but the novelty of her physical appearance so often overshadows the fact that she has yet to produce a remarkable album – because she isn’t necessarily producing albums yet, with Born This Way her only (bloated) exception. They’re selling on the strength of the singles, but the sequencing has yet to mean anything distinct, and she’s still rewriting Bad Romance roughly once a disk. Now is it cool? Oh yeah, of course it is, you can wander through and point out the bangers left and right, the production is gorgeous and lush and colourful. But it’s all on that aesthetic Rick Ross level of cool, that innocuous level where you’re really only paying attention to the riffs and the production values because you’re afraid to criticize the lyricism or analyze the record for themes and sequencing and so on, the things we properly (reasonably) expect from albums. Is that what Anti-Warholian means? Maybe it’s just Skrillex syndrome (or let’s generalize – marketing), but Gaga has yet to release anything whose track diversity, lyrical chops or sequencing has rendered me anything but dulled by the 5th Judas re-up. I just listened to Born This Way now; I got to track 10 before I moved on to another task. Can you name Born This Way‘s remaining 8 tracks? So we’re left with this – a familiar product, a firmly in-the-pocket update to everything we already knew about Lady Gaga.  She’s not lyrically ambitious (seeeex), I’m not her target audience, and I’ll just keep on quickly checking in until we get something out of her that’s as substantial as the time she puts into her live shows and her artistic aspiration. That said, we know it can happen because her talent demands it, and I think we’re about 3 years away from Gaga’s Bat Out Of Hell (or more excitingly, her Ziggy Stardust) – so if you need me, I’ll be outside the club keeping tabs until then.

B

Originally reviewed right here, November 2013.

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