“Matanga” – M.I.A.

4 stars (out of 5)

1

MatangiM.I.A. has gone through a bit of a hard time. Her last album “Maya” was not loved, she was accused of hypocrisy because she may or may not have consumed  truffle french fries whilst being interviewed by The New York Times and her relationship with the obsessively revered Julian Assange (which is continued here) bothered some and problems with both her record company and her own marriage were publicly discussed. She is a fascinating artist, as unique and important as Bjork and, like Bjork, her work could only ever be hers. In respect to the first criticism at least, 2010’s “Maya” was widely slated as inaccessible, ugly-sounding and, the inevitable, ‘hard to love’. Even early musical partner Diplo expressed his concern about her apparent lack of judgement and choice of collaborators but this reaction was one that perplexed. Featuring her most brilliant pop moment ever with “XXXO”, a lovely cover version of Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle” and “Born Free” with its insane ginger-haired army video and Suicide sample, the album was thrillingly eclectic and intricate. It differed from previous releases though, in that M.I.A. had strayed somewhat from sounding like her and this is what’s addressed in “Matangi”, M.I.A. sounds a lot like herself again.

The title track, the first of many here produced by UK electro, fidget-house master Switch sees the pair reunited from the highly-acclaimed and successful “Kala” album, sounds like a continuation of the burundi beats, squawks and chaos of 2006’s “Bird Flu”. The two part time signature of “Come Walk With Me” comes from the same place as “Jimmy”, also from Kala, which M.I.A. remembers as being inspired by pop songs she heard on the radio as a kid. It’s exuberant and child-like and at odds with the majority of M.I.A.’s discography.  “Attention” is vocodered, cut to ribbons, archetypal M.I.A and will irritate the hell out of some. Julian Assange helped her find as many words as possible that could contain the word ‘tent’, acounTENT’ being a favourite although she may be pushing it a bit with LoubouTENT shoes.

The skanking “Double Bubble Trouble” shockingly uses the lyrical hook from Shampoo’s massive pop brat hit from 1988 ‘Trouble’ and is conformation of the amount of fun that M.I.A. is having here. The lightness that was all over her debut album has certainly returned and on “Bring the Noize” and “Y.A.L.A.” she has created two of her biggest and brutish club tunes to date. Lyrically the rhymes do not stand up to close scrutiny, less political than ever before aside from the politics of being M.I.A.. “Boom Skit” talks about her most recent battle with the Super Bowl organisers and “Bad Girls”, sounds as elegant and fresh now as it did two years ago, is about, well, how bad she is.

“Matangi” tends to fall down somewhat with its mid-tempos. Where “Maya” had the gorgeous and spooky “Space” and “Kala” and the gargantuan “Paper Plans”, this has two (very similar) versions of the same song “Sexodus” and “Exodus”. Initially intended for Madonna, or at least offered to her but subsequently refused, it would have been interesting to hear the superstar’s take on this and her proven track record to pull out a melody would have come in useful here. Keeping the slower tracks bunched together at the album’s close only highlights the weakness of them musically and melodically; spaced out during the entire run of the album they may have been more welcomed as a breather from the relentless tempo and charged attitude. It’s only on the minimal, popping shuffle of “Lights” that M.I.A. sounds refreshed and intimate.

“Matangi” has been heralded as Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam’s most spiritual album to date and this statement may confuse but it is not as misleading as initially perceived. Lyrically it may not bare soul and penetrate in the way imagined but musically and rhythmically it references M.I.A.’s own culture as a London-born, Sri Lankan woman and it’s this sound that is at the forefront, left and right in every track. The chants, the percussion, the drums, the melody styles and, on “YALA”, the explicit statement, ‘If we only live once then why do we keep doing the same shit? Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again. That’s why they invented Karma’. On “Kala” she explored other cultures and sounds but this is M.I.A. reasserting her own sound and place in popular culture and music. It may not be as aggressively forward-sounding as some of her previous material but “Matangi” is a celebration of M.I.A.’s ability to provoke and assault in her most joyously sounding album to date.