Every track on MIA’s comeback record chucks handfuls of sonic debris at you and is a reminder of what an important artist she is
A year ago, already 12 months into its elephantine gestation, MIA’s record label rejected an early draft of ‘Matangi’ for sounding “too happy”. Happy may be music biz-speak for “crap”, but either way, after two drafts and a threat from the artist to leak it herself, the happiness problem is now cured. Instead, ‘Matangi’ is sparse, cold steel. Its biggest patch of hotness is the oldest thing here: ‘Bad Girls’, which when compared to the electronic ghosts that walk alongside it sounds full-blooded and just plain conventional. Second teaser ‘Bring The Noize’ is closer to the core of the album: a digital rat gnawing your face off as you lie slumped in a k-hole at a warehouse rave.
Whereas MIA’s first album ‘Arular’ took on the idea of London-as-a-melting-pot in a brilliantly 21st century way, the follow-up, ‘Kala’, sought to take that vision global and her third, ‘Maya’, tried to lurk inside the wires connecting the globe. Her fourth doesn’t offer an easy analogy to the way we live now. It’s more concerned with inventing a new future, and uses producers plugged into the upper rungs of the charts: Britney collaborator Danja; The Partysquad (sort of a Dutch version of Swedish House Mafia); faithful sidekick Switch; The Weeknd and Drake collaborator Doc McKinney; and Hit-Boy, who made Kanye and Jay Z’s ‘Niggas In Paris’, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and A$AP Rocky’s ‘Goldie’. In doing so, MIA takes the basic template of right-now chart music and subverts it by forcing it to work triple time.
Beats are constantly morphing, and every track chucks handfuls of sonic debris at you, up to and including the sound of the volume on a Mac being turned down on ‘Come Walk With Me’. ‘aTENTtion’ confirms this tendency by replacing random syllables with the word “tent”. Strapped to a beat culled from ‘This Is Speed Garage ’98’, it’s like Burial’s ghost playing a hashtag game on Twitter with ‘Yeezus’’ bile duct: cold, metallic, alien and utterly addictive. So too is ‘Warriors’, which starts off down the straight and narrow, then veers wildly away into futurist trance-dance and clacking beats.
The abundance of sparkly fascinators on ‘Matangi’ might be related to over-thinking on its long road to release, but while on ‘Maya’ that sort of concept-heavy approach to innovation often ended in chainsaw samples and a headache, here the remorseless drill-synths have retreated, and its lonely beats’n’vocals core allows plenty of space to acclimatise. So much so that when she brings back the guitars by sampling The Weeknd’s ‘Lonely Star’ on both ‘Exodus’ and ‘Sexodus’, its R&B psychodrama sounds more poignant than ever.
The opportunity for MIA to drop the ball with ‘Matangi’ was massive, and the three opening tracks are dicey enough to show how it could’ve gone wrong: the bit on the title track where she lists countries would be a great start to a Flight Of The Conchords parody. And after ‘Maya’’s misfires and ‘Matangi’’s descent into a Guns N’ Roses and ‘Chinese Democracy’ type of saga, this could have been the record to bury Ms Arulpragasam as a cultural force. Instead, beyond the Superbowl hullabaloo, she’s reminded us exactly why she’s important: she’s a hyper-intuitive artist with a mongrel sensibility who bows to no one. Found, in action.