What's So Spiritual About M.I.A.'s 'Spiritual' New Album?

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For inspiration for her long-awaited Matangi LP, British-Sri Lankan pop maestro M.I.A. turned to a 4,000-year-old Hindu goddess: her namesake. "I found spirituality through the Internet," she explained in 2012, revealing how she discovered the goddess of knowledge and the arts on Google during a trip to India. "I was like, that's weird," she said, "the whole time I've been alive on this planet, my mom never mentioned where my name came from."

Long billed as the provocateur's "spiritual album," Matangi arrived today after a barrage of delays, many of them label-induced. Recoiling slightly from 2010's bracing /\/\/\Y/\it's a dense, teeming collection of brash hooks, lightning-fast samples, and trademark cross-cultural references; it's even got a few tracks to tide over those yearning for another "Paper Planes" or "Galang" (check the sing-song-y "Come Walk With Me"). But with its delirious pacing and odd fixation on 2011-era Internet culture, it's left several critics wondering just what's so spiritual about M.I.A.'s "spiritual album."

There is, of course, the title and the snippet of meditation chant that opens intro "Karmageddon" and reappears on the thumping, hyperactive "Warriors"; references to the namesake goddess crop up elsewhere, as on the almost hypnotically insistent title track. But, as Pitchfork's Lindsay Zoladz quibbles, that motif "often feels thin, avoiding most attempts at depth in favor of gauche puns ('Karmageddon') and easy rhymes." Matangi is rooted in the past, but not the 4,000-year-old past—the album is flooded with pop cultural tropes and references overwhelmingly tied to 2011 and 2012.  

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Consider: there's "Y.A.L.A.," an otherwise infectious manifesto that replaces Drake's "Y.O.L.O." (see: "The Motto," 2011) with "You Always Live Again" months after even tweens have grown tired of the phrase, and there's single "Bad Girls," which you'll recognize from its early 2012 debut. Elsewhere, M.I.A. snags a 2011 Weeknd sample on "Sexodus," has Julian Assange (who opened for the artist last week via Skype) piece together words containing "tent" within them on the bizarre "AtTENTion," and can't stop flipping the proverbial bird over her 2012 Superbowl performance ("Boom Skit"). The latter interlude also shouts out "Kony 2012" and "Instagram"—like much of Matangi, it's politically charged and fierce, but less than current.

None of which is a coincidence, or even M.I.A.'s fault: the artist finished the album as early as last fall, then said Interscope pushed it back for being "too positive." It only received a release date when M.I.A. literally threatened to leak it. As Marah Eakin argues over at The AV Club, "The problem is that the record sat on the shelf for so long [...] that anything that may have once seemed fresh on the record now seems more than a little tired." It's a weighty charge for an innovator who has always seemed to conjure a pop synthesis of the not-so-distant future.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.