Amid the furore surrounding almost everything Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam has done or said these last few months – whether it’s launching a one-woman tirade against a journalist who misquoted her in the New York Times, claiming the Government is inextricably linked with websites like Google and Facebook, or simply unleashing that video – it has become easy to overlook her achievements as an artist. It’s true that in many ways, she doesn’t help herself: from the beginning, her music has been that dressed up in the kind of iconography and blunt radicalism that it is nigh on impossible to separate the two, while her discernible lack of a filter has landed her in some awkward situations, many of her own making.
Whether this is the time or place to consider her merits as an activist is something I’m still wrestling with, but I will go as far as this: I like M.I.A.. It would be a push for even her harshest critics to suggest she doesn’t practise what she preaches; that her efforts to shed light on injustices suffered by the Tamil population of Sri Lanka aren’t born out of a strong sense of responsibility and a childhood displaced by the conflict that has long-plagued the nation. But whichever M.I.A. you choose to accept – the glib provocateur Lynn Hirschberg painted in said article or the beleaguered, socially conscious singer Miranda Sawyer considered in her piece for The Observer – you have to concede that she’s put out some pretty striking records in her time. /\/\ /\ Y /\ (henceforth referred to as MAYA, because come on...) is another, and it unequivocally demands your attention.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the underlying vulnerability of it all. As on Kala, some of the most affecting moments here come when Arulpragasam lowers her guard. Roughly halfway through these 12 tracks she opines: “Maybe I am flawed… / But all I ever wanted was my story to be told”, over the roar of jet engines and skittering, frantic beats. This weary defiance speaks volumes, and set against the myriad samples, vocal manipulations and straight-up bangers that have become hallmarks of her work, it is refreshing to see her present herself in a manner that leaves little room for ambiguity. If, at times, it sounds like she’s posturing (“I don’t want to talk about money / ‘Cause I got it”), it’s because she is, and if it sounds like she’s paranoid (opening skit ‘The Message’ makes it clear that this “Google connected to the Government” thing isn’t going away anytime soon), it’s because, well: she is.
The concept of connectivity runs deep and strong through MAYA: the idea that as a direct result of the Internet and rapid advances in technology, we are all hopelessly linked (and by implication, controlled). All of us apart from those who are not, like the babies in the ditch who lie forlorn and ignored in ‘I’m a Singer’, her riposte to the New York Times article. The song is not subtle (it’s about as far from subtle as you could possibly get, in fact), and it doesn’t feature on MAYA, but its message resonates loud and clear on the album – has done throughout her discography.
It seems almost unfathomable now, but it wasn’t until well after Kala dropped, when ‘Paper Planes’ began its rapid ascent towards ubiquity off the back of the Pineapple Express trailer, that Arulpragasam really became a star (outside of music blogs and fashion magazines, anyway). That in mind, expectation levels for MAYA are high, something its first song seems to acknowledge. ‘Steppin’ Up’ is a rousing, slightly barmy statement of intent that’s out with the shotguns, in with the chainsaws and stuttering low end; when she enters proper (“I light up like a genie / And I blow up on this song”) you can almost hear the snarl on her voice. Rusko’s fingerprints are similarly all over ‘Xxxo’, which is relatively tame in comparison: a melancholy, oddly romantic wash of synth and pitch-shifted vocals that will nevertheless lodge itself in your brain given a couple of listens.
Associates Switch, Blaqstarr and Diplo also figure into MAYA. The latter is responsible for the hedonistic ‘Teqkilla’, where Arulpragasam gleefully declares “I got sticky-sticky icky-icky weed / Like a shot of tequila in me” in a chorus destined for dancefloors worldwide. Those who balked at the wholesale Suicide-plundering present on ‘Born Free’ might be missing the point somewhat – divorced from its genuinely shocking video the song sounds massive, all attitude and rough vocals. ‘Meds and Feds’ is Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells’ contribution, and it splutters out ideas and abrasiveness in much the same manner that band did on Treats, offering plenty insight into why Arulpragasam picked them up on her NEET label in the first place. Elsewhere, her cover of an old Spectral Display tune ‘It Takes a Muscle’ is a dancehall jam that strives to be nothing more than what it originally was – a pop song espousing unity, while ‘Lovalot’ and ‘It Iz What It Iz’ are claustrophobic, mildly sloganeering works, the latter particularly effective.
MAYA takes an unexpected turn following the blitzkrieg of ‘Meds and Feds’: ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘Space’ coast it to the finish line, both highlighting exactly how far Arulpragasam’s singing voice has come on the last few years. Replete with breezy, sumptuous melodies and marked by a lyrical change of tack, the former sees her questioning the corruption and plight surrounding her; condemning what she sees without going on the offensive. Sweet allusions to everything from Puzzle Bobble to ‘Wonderwall’ abound, and in ‘Space’ she finally unshackles herself and disconnects from the technology that has provoked so much ire over the preceding. “My lines are down, you can’t call me / As I float around in space, over seas” she sings, sounding more liberated and at ease than she ever has before. It’s almost like she’s rebooting herself; contemplating a future that has less to do with raging against the machine than gently pointing out the cracks in its façade.
Or… well. Or not. Vulnerable or headstrong – and Arulpragasam is often both on her self-titled third – she sets her stall pretty clearly. “I got something to say” she hollers in ‘Born Free’. As long as her music remains as bold, inventive and occasionally thrilling as it is here, long may that continue.
8James Skinner's Score