M.I.A.: Straight to Hell and Back

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Bob Dylan once described his mid-1960s music as "the sound of the street with the sunrays, the sun shining down at a particular time... the sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartment buildings and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and beating with leather straps."

The music of Sri Lankan pop star Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A.—a figure not without her own aspirations to the Dylanesque--often sounds like a sort of dystopic extremity of this: the sun blistering, the bells deafening, the trains too fast, the arguments breaching the threshold of physical violence. Her first two albums, Arular (2005) and Kala (2007) were vibrant, impelling assaults, numbing and glorious, sometimes both within the same three-minute track. Kala's breakthrough single, the ubiquitous "Paper Planes," was a Top Ten Billboard smash that prominently featured the sound of a gun discharging with the haunting guitar hook of the Clash's "Straight to Hell" as backdrop. It seemed fitting: after all, M.I.A. claimed herself as street prophet to the very war-torn postcolonial world that had inspired the late Joe Strummer to write "Straight to Hell," and was the rare contemporary artist whose interest in geopolitics matched Strummer's own. M.I.A. and the Clash were a match made in heaven.

And then it all went, fittingly, straight to hell. Increased visibility begat backlash: some questioned M.I.A.'s decision to perform at the 2009 Grammys while nine months pregnant; others found her involvement with the film Slumdog Millionaire to be opportunistic and politically inconsistent; whispers abounded that her engagement to music industry scion Ben Bronfman betrayed an establishment coziness unbecoming of an artist with a revolutionary stance. These tempests and others were stunningly crammed into the same teapot two months ago, when Lynn Hirschberg wrote a scathing profile of M.I.A. in the New York Times Magazine that painted its subject as vapid, materialistic, politically naïve and musically fraudulent. M.I.A. reacted by Tweeting Hirschberg's personal phone number and releasing an audio tape of Hirschberg ordering truffle fries, or something, and one of the stranger celebrity controversies in recent memory gained legs.

The significance of what soon came to be known as "truffle-gate" or "the truffle kerfluffle," depending on you knack for rhyming words with "truffle," lay not in whether the Times piece suddenly whiffed of journalistic entrapment (it did), or whether M.I.A.'s scattershot and vacuous self-presentation in the profile was redeemed by the bizarre smoking gun (it wasn't). Far more fascinating was how a truffle fry was made to raise the question of whether a self-styled political artist who connected herself so resolutely—and, crucially, autobiographically—to third-world struggle could be made commensurate with the first-world stardom her listeners had bestowed upon her.

The tone of Hirschberg's article suggested the answer was no, and M.I.A.'s attempt at vindication oddly suggested the same thing (it had all been Hirschberg's idea!), and suddenly the metonymic displacement of M.I.A.'s entire artistic project onto a side dish at the Beverly Wilshire was complete. Much like a politician, Maya Arulpragasam had been exposed in a textbook moment of "gotcha" journalism. And she'd responded the way a politician would, challenging the veracity of her exposure and redoubling her efforts at authenticity, the lingua franca of politicians and political pop stars alike.

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Interscope Records

The lead-up to Tuesday's release of M.I.A.'s third album, phonetically titled MAYA but spelled / \ / \ / \ Y / \ (why make things any easier for journalists?), felt like an echo-chamber of provocations: the artist asserting her "realness" to a public inclined toward doubt; the public pushing back; the artist pushing harder. It's an ungainly dance, and over the past months anxieties over whether the "real" M.I.A. is more Tamil Tiger or paper tiger have led to a dearth of consideration of her actual musical output--an odd state of affairs, since music is ostensibly the only reason we care about her in the first place.

And care about her we should. / \ / \ / \ Y / \ might be the best and most mature album of M.I.A.'s career by a substantial margin, so substantial that it's thrilling to learn she had music like this in her to begin with. While there's nothing here that approaches the quirky populist brilliance of "Paper Planes," most music doesn't. And instead of overreaching at club bangers and noise gimmickry (two sporadic problems in the past), / \ / \ / \ Y / \ finds its titular protagonist making music that's still sometimes murky and maddening but also arrestingly beautiful, a description that her previous albums seemed largely uninterested in mustering.

These moments of beauty come unexpectedly and almost offhandedly, in the laid-back, distorted grind of "Space," the melancholic stutter of "It Iz What It Iz," the soaring major-key grandeur of "Tell Me Why." And then there's the wonderfully effective dance confection "XXXO," the album's first official single and the most transparent bid for pop radio that M.I.A. has ever made. While her first two albums sometimes posed as if things like melody and accessible hooks were to be thrown off like so many bourgeois shackles, / \ / \ / \ Y / \ compels because its moments of real transcendence—and there are many—sound driven by invention rather than flouted expectation, genuine striving as opposed to calculated contrarianism.

Of course, this still leaves unanswered questions. Who is the "real" M.I.A.? After a career defined by broad defiance, political and otherwise, is / \ / \ / \ Y / \ a retreat from the struggle? And who's pulling the strings? Longtime producer Diplo infamously insinuated to Hirschberg that Maya herself has less input into her music than we might think, and the plethora of collaborators on / \ / \ / \ Y / \ (including Blaqstarr and Derek E. Miller of Sleigh Bells) could suggest a further disengagement.

Unanswered questions but also superfluous ones. Whether M.I.A. is the brainchild of Maya Arulpragasam or a team of producers or a bit of both doesn't really matter. If / \ / \ / \ Y / \ is emancipation from the strictures of contrived authenticity, a discovery that art need not always be autobiographical, we could be hearing an exhilarating reimagining of a significant musical figure. Despite her best protestations, / \ / \ / \ Y / \ renders the "real" Maya Arulpragasam as profoundly unimportant: political provocations and pageantry aside, M.I.A. makes music that matters—the realest kind there is.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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