Total Score: 66 / Solid Gold: 46%
Yesterday, Pitchfork’s review of M.I.A.’s latest went up, a scathing dissection of the pop star’s public persona and most recent work, the un-Google-able /\/\/\Y/\. The basic assertion made in the review is that if M.I.A. wants to act like a spoiled, paranoid war-monger, she better be releasing music fun and energetic enough to make us forget all about her questionable politics, outlandish statements, and of course, those truffle-soaked french fries. This is an argument that has been repeating itself over the last couple months before /\/\/\Y/\ actually dropped, as hype and scandal surrounding the artist continued to build. It’s a by-product of a fanatic music community overly concerned with attaching their own individual personalities to their tastes and their icons — as though when they will undoubtedly be confronted by a friend perusing their iTunes collections, asking, “M.I.A. – isn’t she that Sri Lankan chick who loves terrorism?”, they better have a response as good as, “Dude, just listen to ‘Paper Planes’.”
The problem with such a perspective, of course, is that /\/\/\Y/\ might actually find its way into the hands of a listener who doesn’t read Pitchfork or the New York Times – or worse yet, someone who doesn’t care. For the sake of full disclosure, let it be known that this particular reviewer doesn’t find anything all that radical about the implication that Google is connected to the government (see: album opener, “The Message”), or that in a war between a third-world government and a terrorist organization, both sides may be capable of heinous crimes against humanity. That being said, even if this reviewer did have some strong feelings one way or another on the subject, it wouldn’t change the fact that on a scale from 1 to 100 this album is about a 66, or that 46% of this album bangs and 54% is complete throw-away. Chances are if you’re a fan of M.I.A.’s last couple albums, you’ve already reconciled her batshit statements and political leanings, somewhere between the gun shots and cash register sounds in “Paper Planes” — and if you haven’t, if you’re still hoping for some sort of resolution or manifesto coming together to pull it all into focus, then don’t buy this record. If you’re shopping for politics on iTunes, maybe you should stick with your Bill Maher’s and NPR podcasts and call it a day. While M.I.A. has always been brazenly outspoken about her political views, they’ve never exactly been her big selling point, and they shouldn’t be. You might recall that the first time most of the world heard the aforementioned gun shot samples, it was in a commercial for a movie about smoking pot.
And yes — perhaps the most problematic element of /\/\/\Y/\ is that none of the included tracks could make it into a wide-release feature trailer, pot-smoking or otherwise. There is only one real pop track on the whole disc, “XXXO”, which while being immediately catchy and well-produced, will do nothing for fans looking for the new “U.R.A.Q.T.” or “Galang”, sounding more like a Robyn-type knockoff than a genre-bending hip-hop innovator. The closest M.I.A. comes to such previous bangers is on “Internet Connection” a joyfully trivial number featuring a spare bass-heavy beat and a baile funk-esque cadence to M.I.A.’s rhymes (her two aces-in-the-hole for those readers who aren’t already aware), a song about dealing with Verizon tech support over the phone, featuring samples of an actual customer service operator attempting to assist the indie icon. The only other track that attempts a return to such stylistic elements (the minimal, heavy beats and Brazilian-hip-hop-inspired enunciation) is “Lovalot” — but while “Internet Connection” bounces, “Lovalot” drags, a song that’s more a threat than a dance track.
Elsewhere, it seems M.I.A. is turning away from the world-inspired beats that defined her unique sound on Arular and Kala. There’s a great deal of Africa infused into the Diplo-produced track “Tell Me Why”, but its also about as passionless of a production as you might expect from an artist/producer collaboration of ex-lovers that refuse to record in the same studio and are constantly denying that the fame of one is indebted to the other. “It Takes a Muscle” rides steady on a dubbed out reggae beat, but it’s less of an infusion of genre as it is a direct adoption. Instead, the production on /\/\/\Y/\ is soaked with industrial influences (note the chainsaws in “Steppin Up”) and somehow simultaneously indie pop (in the form of more Robyn-isms, note “It Iz What It Iz”). Together, the combination is a chaotic mess that rivals the media shitstorm following the pint-sized Sri Lankan in the year 2010.
Where this album is saved is in an important fact a lot of fans might disregard — that a mediocre M.I.A. album is still leagues better than nearly all other releases in the category of indie hip hop. While there’s a lot to be disappointed with for fans hungry for another “Bucky Done Gun”, a fix is still a fix. M.I.A. isn’t really changing her face here, and on the mic she still delivers on every track — she’s just kind of phoning in on presentation and production. Collaborating producers Rusko, Blaqstarr, and Switch absolutely slay tracks like “Teqkilla” and “Believer” – here, M.I.A. is flawless – and her sound is fresh and groundbreaking again in “Meds and Feds”, thanks to production from NYC hype act Sleigh Bells. And although songs like “Lovalot”, “XXXO”, and “It Takes a Muscle” leave certain things to be desired for the diehards, they remain absolutely solid tracks that from any lesser-known artist would yield massive blog-flooding. Yes, /\/\/\Y/\ is enormously inconsistent, it’s chaotic, and it’s M.I.A.’s least poppy and least polished release to date. But it’s still an M.I.A. record, and M.I.A. is still one of the most groundbreaking and compelling pop stars making music today. Haters abound, but this reviewer is still down (like my internet connection).
Killer – “Teqkilla”, “Internet Connection”, “Caps Lock”
Filler – “It Iz What It Iz”, “Illygirl”, “Story To Be Told”