November 13, 2013

Test Spins: M.I.A., Matangi

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With the release of Matangi, M.I.A. continues to refuse to be labeled. She sings too much to be a hip hop artist, raps too much to be a pop star and positively refuses to settle for a beat that would be in anyway similar to something you would hear on the radio. Matangi finds M.I.A., along with a top-notch production team, melding East and West, new and old and pop and rap into a sound that is unique to her alone. And, a few notable missteps aside, she does so with surprising alacrity and skill.

M.I.A. naturally spurs comparisons to Kanye West, both for her idiosyncrasies and more relevantly for her album’s sound. The Matangi tracks are similar to what I expect would have resulted had ‘Ye recorded Yeezus in Mumbai and found inspiration in a Hindu god instead of a lamp. This is impressive given that Matangi has been in production since 2010 — like West, M.I.A. is not afraid of pushing musical boundaries. M.I.A. also successfully answered the qualms of some fans (like myself) who were concerned that her publicity stunting at the Super Bowl (specifically, flipping the bird) and a relatively conventional lead single in “Bad Girls” hinted at someone who was ready to sell out for a more profitable, radio-friendly style. While this album is not devoid of pop moments, the structure and sound maintains an unpredictability and distinctness not present in the template-driven songs of many of M.I.A.’s pop contemporaries.

The production of Matangi is absolutely the album focal point. Frequent M.I.A. collaborator Switch, of Major Lazer fame, produces the majority of the songs, but also receives help from the likes of Hit-Boy, Danja and Doc McKinney (The Weeknd’s producer). It is obvious that M.I.A. was heavily involved in the development, as virtually all utilize Bhangra (Indian) or other foreign-styled sounds and sequences. This brightens the music, lending an airy, free vibe very different than the dark moods promoted by the synthesizers relied upon in most hip hop production. However, within individual songs, the track will jump disjointedly between sounds and rhythms, giving the entire album a frantic, disorienting sound that can make it a somewhat exhaustive listen.

Lyrically, Matangi is a mixed bag, never consistently finding a footing. M.I.A. is certainly not a superb lyricist, not that she really expresses interest in being one. Most of the verses are short, the rhymes cheap and the details scarce. The majority of the songs generally have some idea, but they depend on vague statements or rhetorical questions to communicate. This works, but it relegates the album to more of background music than something you would really want to listen to. And this is disappointing, because M.I.A. is one of our more aware semi-mainstream artists, both politically and socially. In many ways though, this lyrical weakness parallels the well-documented contradiction of M.I.A. — how could someone so well intentioned and outspoken frequently seem so uninformed?

Containing the only feature of the album, “Exodus” and “Sexodus” both use a sample of The Weeknd’s “Lonely Star” to varying effects. The materialism-questioning “Exodus” changes the pace and is a relief to see midway through, but album closer “Sexodus” feels redundant. The EDM-influenced “Y.A.L.A.” (You Always Live Again) is an ironic take on everyone’s favorite motto and a reflection of M.I.A.’s Hindu roots. It is well done, if late to the party. The Hit-Boy-produced “Boom Skit” is short but focused, as M.I.A. goes directly after her critics while displaying her rapping ability (complete with a Kony 2012 reference!). “aTENTion”, about tent refugees, also has some lyrical dexterity, hidden well within chopped and looped vocals and a throbbing beat.

Ultimately, Matangi really does have the bones to make a great record — they just need to be assembled in a more effective way. It seems if Rick Rubin had not been so busy chilling on Jay Z’s couch, he could have been an asset here — removing, shortening and stripping a couple of songs each. Instead we are left with an album that is delightful for a song or two, but at 54 minutes, can become tedious to listen through. While I cannot help but think of what it could have been, it is still a good, distinct album that is a worthy addition to the M.I.A. catalogue.