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M.I.A., ‘Maya’ (N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope)

mia, maya, m.i.a., review
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: July 13, 2010
Label: N.E.E.T./XL/Interscope

The most combustive song on M.I.A.’s third album isn’t loud or chaotic. Built on a mildly ominous, off-kilter beat — plus an incessant shoosh like a bag of coins being shaken — it bloops along with the grace of a janky PopCap game. But the sneakily titled “Lovealot” is perhaps the riskiest gambit yet from the 32-year-old artist born Maya Arulpragasam.

“Lovealot” alludes in part to the iconic, viral photo of a pistol-wielding Russian/Islamic couple — the husband, a terrorist leader killed last year by police, and the wife, a teenager who tried to avenge his death by suicide-bombing the Moscow subway (at one point the song was titled “A/bdurakh/man/ova,” after the girl’s surname). Merely 20 seconds in, M.I.A. spits, suddenly, “Like a Taliban trucker eatin’ boiled-up yucca / Get my eyes done like I’m in the burka,” and then, “Like a hand-me-down sucker throwin’ bombs out at Mecca,” and on and on. What’s more, when she purrs the line, “I really love a lot,” she stretches the last two words so they sound like “I really love Allah.”

Exploring the mindset of impulsive youth caught up in Islamic terrorism — on an eccentric electro-rap track — is a head-spinning project. But M.I.A. embraces it fearlessly, even mischievously. “I fight the ones that fight me,” she singsongs, refusing moral judgment. It’s as if she’s imagining more than sympathizing. Give or take a few events, she could’ve been that wife in the photo.

Boasting a stage name that means missing in action (war zone implied), the Brooklyn-based British Sri Lankan has always been mercurial, volatile, elusive. As much smash-and-grab as cut-and-paste. 2005’s Arular (titled after her absent militant father) and 2007’s Kala (after her refugee single mom) burst with splashes of disorienting static. A fluorescent hall of weed smoke and cracked mirrors. Double-Dutch jumps across borders.But unlike the nomadic cultural-attaché persona she adopted for Kala — after visa issues disrupted plans to record in the U.S. — M.I.A. plants her feet firmly with this self-titled album, which she created primarily in America while tending to a newborn son. Aside from “Lovealot,” she proudly proclaims her intentions as a first-world pop star, de-emphasizing found collage and “third-world democracy” for melodic sway and punky bluster (aided by familiar producers Switch, Blaqstarr, and Diplo, plus newbies Rusko and Sleigh Bells’ Derek Miller).

On the Suicide-sampling fuzzbomb “Born Free” (which was reduced to witless agitprop by Romain Gavras’ hamhanded video — watch below) she asserts: “I don’t wanna talk about money / ‘Cause I got it / I don’t wanna talk about hoochies / ‘Cause I been it.” And she’s even more blunt amid the synth cross fire of “Steppin’ Up”: “You know who I am / I run this fuckin’ club.”

And as a first-world pop-star mama, what’s obsessing M.I.A. day to day? Well, the Internet, of course, and Google and social networking and smart phones, and their subversive/oppressive potential (see her YouTube-crazed cover art). M.I.A.’s most plainspoken tracks, the data-dazed R&B of “XXXO” and “Space Odyssey,” speak dreamily of love and technology and how those wires so often get crossed. In the former, a pushy lover is kept at bay (“You Tweetin’ me like Tweety Bird”); in the latter, even a Puzzle Bobble game induces paranoia. “My lines are down, you can’t call me,” she coos. Despite M.I.A.’s fervor to engage the world’s battles, even she can feel overly connected.

After all, how do you think that terrorist couple first met? Yep, on the Internet.