Ambitious album intriguing if rough
British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. performed at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2007. Bells and emerges as a scorching rocker, and the wistful “Space” is likely to be the closest thing to a ballad M.I.A. ever records. Between its more accessible numbers and the order that eventually emerges from the sharp and prodding edges of its more adventurous tracks, “^^ ^Y^” is ultimately a not-entirely-successful but still ambitious and intriguing effort from one of today’s most fragmented personalities. Much ink — some literal, substantially more digital — has been spilled on the subject of British-Sri Lankan rapper Maya Arulpragasam since the release of 2007’s star-making “Kala.” Most of it has centered on her unlikely bio as the daughter of an absentee Tamil Tigers father, or her fashion, or her showstopping, full-on pregnant performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards, or her politics, or her recent tiff with Lynn Hirschberg, author of a damning profile in The New York Times Magazine.
All of which is hideously misguided; the millions who hungrily consumed “Paper Planes” and made the song a staple in dance halls and discos and clubs and high school parties worldwide likely couldn’t have cared less about the track’s lyrical content. Strip away M.I.A.’s 21st-century multicultural window dressing and you’re left with — at her best – a cunning artist who slices and dices reggae and hip-hop and electronica and dub for a globetrotting tour of young urban sounds. So the big question for M.I.A.’s quasi-self-titled “^^ ^Y^” (pronounced “Maya,” one assumes) is: Does it bang?
The answer: sometimes. M.I.A. seems to be aging in reverse, growing substantially less mellow and more abrasive as the years tick by. There’s nothing on “^^ ^Y^” with the easygoing charm of “Sunshowers,” off debut album “Arular,” nor any dance number quite as giddy as “Jimmy,” a fiendishly addictive pop highlight off “Kala.” “Steppin’ Up” sets the tone, laying her echoing vocals over an aggressive industrial barrage of chainsaws and power wrenches. “Teqkilla” is six minutes of drugs and drone. “Born Free” has a building, epic post-rock energy but rates low on the accessibility meter and might confuse those whose first exposure to M.I.A. was a trailer for “Pineapple Express.”
Pair that with M.I.A.’s often-cynical lyrics (“They told me this was a free country,” she says of the United States on “Lovalot.” “And now it feels like a chicken factory.”) and the unceasing examination of life in the digital world and you have an album that could feel less like a good time and more like a guilt trip.
But “^^ ^Y^” isn’t entirely given over to cacophonous slogs. “XXXO” is an electronica-soaked dance number, while “It Takes a Muscle” reaches surprisingly sentimental, reggae-influenced heights. “Meds and Feds” co-opts a sample from Brooklyn duo Sleigh