I’m a huge fan of M.I.A.’s first two albums, “Arular” (2005) and “Kala” (2007). They’re fun, unique, and I buy into M.I.A.’s rebellious angle on hip-hop; and as I’ve made clear in my review of Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle” (1993), a rapper’s credibility is incredibly important to how I feel about their work. Perhaps this is why I avoided M.I.A.’s third release, “Maya” (2010); I had heard less than positive things about it, so in order to preserve her character I never listened to any tracks outside of “Born Free” which had a controversial music video that, quite frankly, I was a fan of. As such though, it sometimes felt like M.I.A. hadn’t released any music since 2007, though that was certainly not the case, and M.I.A.’s 2012 single “Bad Girls” set my expectations for a new album very high. “Bad Girls” is just an incredibly bad ass song and music video, clashing hip-hop tropes like gold chains and fast cars with a middle-eastern desert and girls in hijab with guns. For over a year I waited for the album that would give the song a home; this is where “Matangi” (2013) comes in.
In “Matangi” I see M.I.A. comfortably experimenting with the formulas that made “Arular” and “Kala” so great. The drum machines and rocking Indian beats I’ve come to expect are here, and mixed with some modern electronic elements this time around. “Come With Me” is a slower, more pop-sounding track, that becomes unrelentingly M.I.A. in sound; loud, fast, sampling musical themes from Indian music. It’s one of the first songs on the album that made me glad that M.I.A.; who performed with Madonna and has the potential to be a big huge pop sell-out, sticks to her guns (how many pop songs talk about Uganda and go into Bollywood-Breakdowns?). The song also samples an M.I.A. song from “Kala”, “M.I.A. is coming back with power! power!” and I couldn’t agree more.
“Only 1 U” features a shot at Tomb Raider “Lara Croft is soft, she’s made up, I’m real” (and I believe you M.I.A.), “ATENTion” is a song that’s got deep, club-worthy dub bass, and uses more vocoder effects than I remember ever hearing on an M.I.A. track, and “Exodus” closes off the first half of the album with a warning chorus, “You tell me you wanna have it all, [but] tell me what for?” It’s a very solid first half, and “Warriors” is the only song I labeled merely okay.
“Bad Girls” finds its home in the center of “Matangi” where it’s still every bit as catchy and hypnotizing as it was when it first dropped, and sets the tone for the second, more intense half of the album. “Boom Skit” at just over a minute long is packed, packed, with awesome criticisms of American culture: “Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down, you know America don’t wanna hear your sound, boom boom jungle music, go back to India”, “Let you into Super Bowl, you tried to steal Madonna’s crown.” For the record, I was proud of my girl M.I.A. for flipping off the camera at the Super Bowl half time show, it’s not like she was ever going to be there again, so why not? But for such a short song, “Boom Skit” is incredibly fun, and I love the shots she takes, particularly at the failed Kony 2012 movement. “Double Bubble Trouble” and “Y.A.L.A.” are very dance-worthy songs with bumping hip-hop beats, pulling sounds from reggae music and modern dance-pop tracks. “Y.A.L.A.” takes a shot at Y.O.L.O. culture in such an amazing way, and it really speaks to why I love her.
“If you only live once why we keep doing the same shit? Back home where I come from, we keep getting born again and again, that’s why we invented karma.”
Way to take American/Internet culture down a peg by writing about what you know, and drawing on your larger world experiences! The rest of “Matangi” goes strong in the rap and hip-hop direction, leaving the lighter pop side of the album behind largely behind, until “Sexodus”, a reprise version of “Exodus.” As I talked about in my review of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” (1998) I’m a sucker for reprise songs, as an analysis of the two versions really lets us see how we’ve thematically changed since the beginning of the album. In the “Sexodus” v. “Exodus” case, we’ve gotten a little dirtier, grittier, and real since the beginning of “Matangi” and as the sounds of helicopters fly overhead in “Sexodus” I feel like M.I.A.’s warnings of “Exodus” have gone unheard…
With “Matangi” M.I.A. sounds different enough from her past albums to avoid repetition, but she is still unforgiving in her thematic choices, and that’s what defines M.I.A., and in that “Matangi” delivers in full; this is M.I.A. as awesome as she’s ever been.