It took the full album leak to hear where M.I.A. went with her third album, /\/\/\Y/\, because the first tracks we heard were so different: the aggressive, Suicide-sampling “Born Free,” the luxe Europop of “XXXO,” the industrial grind of “Steppin’ Up“,” the playful club track, “Teqkilla.” It was true of her second album, Kala, (listen to “Boyz,” “Jimmy,” and “Paper Planes,” and decide what M.I.A. “sounds like”). This is what we love about M.I.A., seeing her make those leaps and landing, however unsteadily, right on the mark. So you expect a collage of styles and genres, political potshots and anti-corporate sloganeering. But what you don’t expect from M.I.A. is an album as muddy as this. The pre-album buzz focused on her politics and authenticity. And on /\/\/\Y/\, the way she explores and addresses both are sharp as ever. Unfortunately, the songs don’t match.
M.I.A. thrives under constraint; Arular was ingenious and self-confident despite a lack of money and her relative obscurity, while Kala was the wonderfully messy result of an invalid travel visa. The resources available to her this time around — producers itching to work with her, a personal studio at her disposal, designers and artists ready to execute her vision — have taken care of those constraints. But this master adapter had to then adapt to her freedom, either finding new problems or inventing them. The first, major one that forms the backbone: the Internet. Opener “The Message” sets the stage with the sound of a clacking keyboard and a clumsy mantra: “iPhone connected to the internet connected to the Google connected to the government.” It is less a song than an idea, a proof of concept. That happens a few times on /\/\/\Y/\. On “XXXO,” connectivity takes a more personal turn, because her lover’s “….tweetin’ me like a tweety bird.” (With his iPhone, naturally.) “My lines are down,” she sings during closer “Space” (released, in a different form, as “Space Odyssey“). Here she sounds dreamy and relaxed, either relieved to be rid of the nightmare of communication, or simply glad she doesn’t have to listen to anyone else talk. It’s easy to see why she’s become a bit of a conspiracy theorist. The New York Times made her new residence in L.A. sound more like a compound than a home. The record that emerged from that luxury walled fortress reflects a paranoia bred by isolation and high-speed connectivity.
She’s got a love/hate relationship with these connections. “I got something to say,” she declares on “Born Free.” But though she’s saying something, it’s never clear what that thing is, or who it’s directed against, or what exactly the song’s controversial agitprop video is suggesting about whoever it is that’s doing the thing, whatever it is, she doesn’t like. The nursery rhyme-esque “Story To Be Told,” which begins with a plane taking off (or missiles launched, who knows), and a bit of false modesty: “All I ever wanted was my story to be told.” And though she wants to blame YouTube for not getting her message through, sometimes she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to do with her platform. Listen to “Tekqkilla,” a less serious, alcohol brand-dropping dance track, and you’ll struggle to hear what she’s saying at all. As with the rest of the album, her voice is buried in the mix, becoming part of the song’s sound collage and reflecting an uncharacteristic lack of confidence. For all its obscurity, this may be the record’s most revealing moment. Miller’s contribution “Meds + Feds” began as a Sleigh Bells demo, and contains the album’s theme she mentioned in a Rolling Stone review, the “digital ruckus” she wants to create. You get the feeling she’s disappearing behind smoke bombs. “Lovalot,” the suicide-bomber-inspired love story wrapped in politics, is far more focused, the samples and beat retreating to give her some space. It’s one of the better tracks on /\/\/\Y/\.
It’s perhaps unfair to view every song through the lens of M.I.A.’s money, what she ordered off the menu, or her struggle with her own authenticity. But just taking what she says on /\/\/\Y/\, it’s obvious that she’s thought about it, way more than you have, and she has trouble with it, too. “It Iz What It Iz” sounds as exhausted as its title. “They all got issues, but I got a bit more. I put it in boxes and I put it in a store. I have you really like I can do you some more” and her voice sounding tired. Arulpragasam’s made clear that she wants the platform of a huge pop star, but she’s also made clear that even she wouldn’t know quite what to do with it. That goes for the songs as well.
She’s pooled some of the best producers here: Diplo, Blaqstarr, Rusko, Switch. The best M.I.A. songs, at their core, are a mix of strident and dull, a chaotic, worldsmart college backing her serious deadpan. It’s hard to put a finger on just one thing, but there’s something flat and undifferentiated about the record, though it teases and tests different genres across its dozen tracks. One of album’s best tracks “It Takes A Muscle,” (produced by Diplo, a partial cover of Spectral Display’s single of the same name), has Arulpragasam singing “It takes a muscle to fall in love,” over soft pop reggae. Any pop star of the last 30 years could have written and sung that line (and, you know, someone did). But when it comes out of M.I.A’s mouth, suddenly it sounds surprising. We get only glimpses of M.I.A. the unapologetic pop star, and they’re more convincing than anyone would have expected five years ago. But she hasn’t convinced herself yet.
/\/\/\Y/\ is out 7/13.