Am­bi­tious al­bum in­trigu­ing if rough

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360BETS -

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

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