When M.I.A. flipped her now-infamous middle finger at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, Madonna called the act “negative.” But watch the footage again, and it seems anything but. The centurions, the cheerleaders, the dancer bouncing on his groin—this was a performance where everyone seemed 100-percent committed to delivering the biggest, most incredible spectacle possible. Maya Arulpragasam, reportedly spurred by “adrenaline and nerves,” delivered the irreverent lyrics she’d been hired to deliver—“I’m gonna say this once / I don’t give a shit”—while flashing the ultimate signal of irreverence. Isn’t that just awesome, on-message fun?
I’m kidding, but only a little. The best way to view M.I.A.’s many provocations—too long to list, but most recently including opening a New York City concert by having Julian Assange speak—really is as “awesome, on-message fun.” Since her start nearly a decade ago, she has mixed politics, art, and pop to create products whose best virtue is playfulness: She subverts expectations not just to make a larger point, but also because it's a blast.
Of course, her work has other important virtues as well. Usually, her globetrotting, infectious hip-hip looks to grab power for people the West often considers as lesser—women, artists, minorities, foreigners, the poor—by drawing attention to herself and then to them. Sloganeering, air horns, schoolyard chants, gunshots, punk rock: all effective tools, historically wielded by the disenfranchised, for attracting eyes and ears. An even better means to captivate audiences? Great pop songs. She's made a few of those.
Maya, her previous full-length—the first following the smash success of her single “Paper Planes”—found her spooking her new fans with confrontational, industrial noise. (It was righteous.) But on her fourth album, Matangi, she just seems to take joy in how malleable her fame-as-political-influence shtick can be. The robotic, reportedly Assange-assisted two-step of "aTENTion" serves as a nice example. “The fullest extent of my intent is to let you know what is important,” she intones, which would seem like a dreary statement of purpose if not for the fact that she outlandishly pitch-shifts each “tent”/“tant” syllable to mimic the capitalization of the song title. (Even more outlandish: The “TENT” motif is meant to evoke refugee camps.)
Elsewhere, she pranks her listeners as enthusiastically as she pranked the NFL. “Come Walk With Me” opens as a lovey-dovey slow dance before exploding into a riot of car alarms, camera flashes, baby squeals, and MacBook volume-control blurps. The latter half of that track, and other busy, shapeshifting bangers like “Only 1 U,” “Warriors,” "Bring the Noize," and “Double Bubble Trouble,” make you feel simultaneously transported to a combat zone, a night club, and a day care filled with a toddlers wielding Speak & Spells.
More than ever, M.I.A. focuses on creating bustling sonic textures, not on potential avant-garde pop hits. It takes a few listens to get that; at first, it seems she’s pointlessly remixing her old stuff to be stranger, longer, and less accessible. But dance around to the album for a while and the frenzy starts to seem inspired. Having achieved a modern classic with "Paper Planes" and offended the audience of the most-watched concert on Earth, she’s never going to get as big a stage as the one she’s already been given. Most everyone who can be converted likely has been, so why shouldn't she take her aesthetic to its noisy, delightful extreme?
She does, though, make a couple plays for the mainstream, which is nice; otherwise, fans couldn't play any new M.I.A. songs at parties without scaring people away. The rolling-thunder bass, Bollywood motif, and dripping confidence of "Bad Girls" remains as intoxicating as it was when it was first released two winters ago. Even more amusingly, "YALA" scoots along a tambourine-assisted beat while M.I.A. riffs on "YOLO" hedonism with reincarnation in mind: "Up and down a pole / Like you’re glowing up a yo-yo."
But any previous M.I.A. skeptics lured in by those songs might be struck with that old, Super Bowl feeling when they come across the interlude “Boom.” “Brown girl, brown girl / Turn your shit down / You know America don't wanna hear your sound / Boom boom jungle music / Go back to India,” she says, perhaps reading from some of the social-media response to her flipping the bird. She raps those words with a nursery-rhyme lilt backed by a perky beat that an idiot might describe as, yes, “boom boom jungle music.” She’s taunting the taunters: not the most positive thing to do, perhaps, but definitely the most entertaining.