Why some people take M.I.A. so seriously, I don’t know. Haters, stans, people who use the word “appropriative”—I’d hope they would all share a laugh when Maya flips off the worldwide audience of the 2012 Super Bowl, invites Julian Assange to Skype from the stage of a concert, or—as she does on her fourth album, Matangi—answers the long kaput YOLO business with “Y.A.L.A.,” or “You Always Live Again,” a song that ends with her explaining, “[and] that’s why they invented karma.”
I’m as entertained, in other words, by Maya’s chaotic and sometimes kooky nonconformity as by her free-trade beats, far-out hooks, and supremely self-aware exploitation of (to Westerners) “exotica.”
And I don’t doubt that the she’s got a sense of humor about it all, either. Unless I’m misreading lines like, “If you’re gonna be me you need a manifesto/If you ain’t got one you better get one presto,” from the new album’s thrumming title track.
At the same time, I get genuine tingles from that song when she starts sing-songing the names of various nations, as if to equate—or unite—them all: “Somalia, Bosnia/Cuba, Colombia/Equador, Mexico …” It’s grand gesture open to all kinds of interpretations, which makes it familiar to anyone who knows M.I.A.—and yet another opening for the kind of serious analysis that I think misreads her commitment to confounding people who take themselves too seriously.
Which I don’t believe to be so far off from what Ayesha A. Siddiqi suggests in a recent Noisey post that starts, “One of the most entertaining and frustrating things about being a fan of M.I.A. has been watching white critics struggle to articulate her style while challenging her right to the aesthetic she cultivates.”
For the record, I’m a white critic who, like many critics I read (Robert Christgau, say), tends to gush about M.I.A.’s aesthetic. But more importantly, Siddiqi—who does use the word “appropriative”—hits on why I find M.I.A.’s aesthetic so appealing, and playful:
Instead of the gloomy faced oppression of “third worlders” waiting for first world sponsorship, she brings us their rhythms, colors, and slang. Instead of the stoic self-seriousness of pop stars with a cause, M.I.A. waxes ironic. And it confuses the hell out of people.
Alas, life’s not all fun and games for M.I.A. While her second album, Kala, sold 560,000 copies and produced her biggest hit, “Paper Planes,” the follow up, Maya, only found 99,000 buyers. Matangi will help decide just how prominent of a pop star she remains.
More velvety than spiky, it’s certainly better than the grinding Maya, and in addition to the (now somewhat stale) hit “Bad Girls,” it includes “Exodus” and “Sexodus,” a positively sensual two-parter featuring the Weeknd, and the mesmerizing “Warriors,” produced by Hit-Boy. Throughout, she remains a charismatic leader preaching a flippant sort of militancy. If nothing else, that makes her one of pop’s great eccentrics.