Music Review: Matangi – M.I.A.

M.I.A. – Matangi

Matangi, M.I.A.’s fourth studio album, is a vast improvement over her previous album, MAYA, but falls very short of the potential seen in her first two albums.  Promoted as her “spiritual album”, I can’t help but feel that her notion of what spiritual means is a dive into greater and greater narcissistic depths.

When I heard Arular, her first studio album, I was blown away.  Here was something that I could not get my head around for days, having to listen to it over and over in order to understand what was happening.  It was new, and my brain had a hard time adjusting… but when it did, I was rewarded with some of the most creative uses of rhythm and non-traditional song structure I had heard in quite some time.  Upon her release of Kala, a certain self-awareness seemed to set in, and some notion of her being something greater that the sum of her parts seemed to take over.  It is an incredible album from start to finish… but there was a shift.  By the time MAYA was released… it seemed to be a giant middle finger to the very fans who made her popular in the first place.

I realize that she seems to consider herself a bit of a provocateur, and I appreciate what her intentions seem to be at times; stir the shit up, get people thinking, make some political statements, and on occasion, accurate predict things like the NSA spying on everyone… but her bratty behavior tends to come off as just that, bratty… and I wouldn’t care so much about her personal opinions if they weren’t so ingrained in her music.

To say I was reluctant to pick up Matangi is an understatement… but honestly, I like it.  Although I try to divorce the art from the artist, it is amplified with M.I.A. due to the nature of her music and that she brings much of her viewpoint into the lyrics as well as seemingly reveling in being discordant and difficult to grasp.  It took a good five or six listens spread out over time in order for me to process this album, but I found much to enjoy throughout this time around.

I’ve noticed that she seems to inhabit at least four different personas over the course of this or any of her previous albums: the angry politico, the flip stoned prankster, the gangsta, and the sexual fierce woman.  Occasionally she will meld two of these together at once… but more often than not, her music seems to bounce between one or the other.  For me, she is at her best when she is using her sexuality… and on this album, Bad Girls becomes classic M.I.A.  Full of innuendo and sensual imagery, she comes across as confident and very much in her domain.  I felt the same way with some of her earlier works… Sunshowers and Jimmy come to mind.

Where she also excels is when she makes the decision to incorporate melody into her music.  The first single from Matangi, Come Walk With Me, begins with an almost quaint melodic opening… guitar and her voice, with a shockingly sweet message of asking someone to just walk with her… that this doesn’t have to be some party of waving your hands in the air… but don’t sweat it, she’ll still fuck with him, just walk with her.  Although it opens in this sweet fashion, it very quickly goes into what M.I.A. has always done best, incorporating many disparate noises and sounds into a cohesive and groovy beat that on the surface sounds cacophonous at times, but after many listens, her intent becomes clear and the rhythm is inescapable.  I think she even uses the noise of a Mac’s volume control as an instrument, and the results can be amazing.

Exodus is another rather melodic piece that starts with more promise than it delivers, but it is a pleasant diversion from many of the more bombastic tracks.  Of those more bombastic numbers, the title track, Matangi, can be a bit grating, as can Only 1 U… these feel like she is trying to make a point… and often when she tries to make a point, it ends up coming out as trite and almost silly.  Something akin to someone who believes in every conspiracy theory out there (sadly, many people I know fall into this category… but that always bums me out)… or, that strange phenomenon of someone who would ever comment on something as being “deep”.  The word “pretentious” comes to mind… and it frustrates me to no end.

As for her tough “gansta” persona… pfft.  Doesn’t do it for me.

Another thing present on this album, as with her others, is that she often successfully incorporates many of her native Sri Lankan sounds and beats throughout the tracks to great effect.  It’s her melding of her many different worlds that has made her a success thus far… unfortunately, her personality and desire to appear “above it all” casts a rather long shadow over what could otherwise be a fantastic career.  In the track YALA (You Always Live Again), she attempts to address the YOLO culture of today’s youth… and contrasting it with the notion of reincarnation and how her culture believes that you don’t only live once… blah blah blah.  Sadly, shining a light on YOLO is like pretending you are on the cutting edge of something that is four years old.  It reeks of someone trying a bit too hard to seem contrary.

Would I say that Matangi is an unmitigated success?  No… but it is an album worth getting acquainted with, and chances are that if you listen to this album at various times, and in various moods, you will find something to admire and like throughout.  Welcome back M.I.A.

Every Bond fan knows that you only live twice… duh,
Cornelius J. Blahg

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