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Deconstructing M.I.A.


Confused revolutionary? Brilliant provocateur? As her Super Bowl digit malfunction reminded everyone, Maya Arulpragasam is?one of the most polarizing figures in pop today, a neon blur of contradictions and conflations — but she may also be the most thrilling. Here’s a handy primer to her life and art and everything in between SPIN originally published in our August 2010 issue.

By some accounts — including her own — we should all be done talking about Maya Arulpragasam. In 2007, promoting her sophomore album, Kala, the singer known as M.I.A. told an interviewer, “I feel like a mirror reflecting back everyone’s perception of me. Part of me wants to carry on. Part of me wants to stop.” Eight months later, onstage at Bonnaroo, she went even further: “This is my last show,” she announced.

Like many things she says, the statement posed more questions than it answered. And soon enough, M.I.A.’s career was on another upswing: In the summer of 2008, the trailer for Pineapple Express turned Kala‘s best song, “Paper Planes,” into a hit; she performed at the Grammys (on the day she was scheduled to give birth); got an Oscar nomination for Best Song for the Slumdog Millionaire track “O…Saya”; and saw Kala go gold.

Now, she’s just released her third and most anticipated album, /\/\/\Y/\, and the mirror is only getting bigger and bigger, shifting fun-house-style. The ultraviolent video for “Born Free” caused a media shit storm. The New York Times Magazine chimed in with a nine-page feature that attempted to expose M.I.A. as an entitled, politically naive hypocrite (if you missed the ensuing Internet-fueled micro-scandal, you really need to spend less time outside). Of M.I.A.’s many talents, explaining herself may not be her strongest or her favorite — she declined to go on the record for this story — but that’s okay. We’re happy to give it a shot. In that same 2007 interview, she predicted, “I might be in carpentry next year.” Or maybe not.

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M.I.A. has claimed that when she moved from war-torn Sri Lanka to London in 1983 at age eight, she only knew two English words: “Michael Jackson,” as if her beats-without-borders worldview came via some sort of Thriller-inscribed primal scene. When “Galang” hit in 2004, it worked a space between hip-hop, dancehall, and then-trendy grime, like the Slits meets rave meets Missy Elliott. Never much of a singer or dancer, she worked in the tradition of technically limited geniuses like Madonna and Miles Davis, who only used exactly the amount of talent necessary to make a scene.

“She’s got a million ideas,” says Rusko, one of the producers on her new album. “When we record her, we fix some of the out-of-tune notes and keep some in. A lot of recording with her is happy accidents.”

M.I.A. got her start as a London graphic designer and scenester, hanging with English pop heavies like Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and Blur’s Damon Albarn. In 2000, while working as Elastica’s tour videographer, she learned how to operate a Roland MC-505 drum machine with help from the tour’s opening act, smut-rapper Peaches. A large coterie of producers and engineers worked on her 2005 debut, Arular, but it still had the euphoric feel of a novice punching buttons and letting her chanting-rapping-trilling-spieling vocalese bounce off the sounds she conjured.

“Today, hip-hop is club music,” says Rusko, who notes that having M.I.A. on his résumé led to work on new Britney Spears tracks. “Hip-hop and R&B are looking towards club music for ideas right now. She and [ex-boyfriend and frequent collaborator] Diplo were some of the first people to do that. It’s the rule now.”

2007’s Kala was supposed to be the record where she went pro. Timbaland was on tap to coproduce (he ended up doing one track). But when the U.S. government denied her a long-term work visa, she regrouped and recorded throughout the third world, culling performances from Nigerian MC Afrika Boy and a 30-piece Indian drum circle, among others. On Kala, the sounds of third-world slums hammer at the gates of first-world pop; “I put people on the map that never seen a map,” she sang on “20 Dollar.”

In a sense, /\/\/\Y/\ is a map, a global picture of the matrices of technology, power, and money. The technology theme gestated during her pregnancy, where the housebound mom-to-be became obsessed with new media. (Google is thanked in the liner notes.) “XXXO” turns on a metaphor about flattened identities in the iPhone era; “Internet Connection” is a meditation on aloneness inspired in part by a three-hour bout with customer service; “Lovealot” is the story of Russian Islamic teen terrorists who met online; and the album-closing “Space Odyssey” turns the floaty phrase “My lines are down, you can’t call me” into a double metaphor for romantic disconnection and techno-alienation.

The music is as universal as the theme, less worldly in that it doesn’t use global beats but more of-the-world in that it plays off the pop music that most people actually listen to. It’s folk music for the iPad age, her most radical gesture yet.