A couple of years ago, M.I.A.'s breakthrough hit, "Paper Planes," came on like a party in a pipe bomb: hooks lifted from the Clash's punk trudge "Straight to Hell" and Wreckx-n-Effect's hip-hop floor filler "Rump Shaker," along with a heady dash of violent class-war fantasy and Sri Lankan British rapper-singer-provocateur Maya Arulpragasam chanting her impish lyrics as if she was waiting for everyone to catch on to what she was really talking about. For a moment, it seemed that M.I.A. might actually be able to bring radical politics to car radios.
As of her third studio album (technically titled /\/\ /\ Y /\, but let's just call it Maya, shall we?), that day has yet to arrive. It's not that M.I.A.'s politics have softened; now that she's a successful artist on a major label and engaged to the son of a billionaire, she seems more determined than ever to prove her revolutionary bona fides. Witness the gory, genocide-themed video for the first single off Maya, "Born Free," which makes clear that flirting with the idea of political violence is still central to the way the artist presents herself. But her music has gotten so hard it's brittle.
Maya is an exhausted, scowling, mumbling record, nearly devoid of M.I.A.'s former exuberance and omnivorous, internationalist beat mining. Its arrangements recall the '70s synth-punk duo Suicide (a monomaniacal three-note riff from their 1977 song "Ghost Rider" forms the spine of "Born Free") or the hammering, gnashing rhythms of late-'80s industrial rock. M.I.A. and her producers slather on the distortion and echo effects and throw in dissonance and squealing noises, which don't quite cover up the essential flimsiness of the underlying songs. Auto-Tune saps her voice of its dry lilt; chopped-up samples of growling guitars cover the surface of a few tracks like crayon scribbles. Even her longtime collaborator Diplo, who produced some of the better songs on Maya, has already publicly dismissed the rest of the album.
There are a few flashes of M.I.A.'s old wit here. Despite the labored pun in the title of "Teqkilla," it's basically a drinking song a catalog of boozes that manages to allude to the singer's relationship with liquor heir Benjamin Bronfman: "When I met Seagrams/ Sent Chivas down my spine." Still, you'd scarcely know that from its whomp-and-screech production, which slices M.I.A.'s performance into slivers and buries it in the mix. The refrain of "Lovalot" is "I really love a lot/ But I fight the ones that fight me," cannily slurred into "I really love Allahhh" (and then repeated dozens of times).
The great thing about M.I.A.'s first few records was that she made bomb throwing sound like fun by setting her politics to party music: hip-hop and Bollywood disco and Brazilian batucada. In pushing for an uncompromising sound, she has made an album that's no fun at all, even when it tries to rouse itself for a little dancing. Its failure as pop means she's not going to win her ideology any friends either.