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Deconstructing M.I.A.

As her Super Bowl digit malfunction reminded everyone, Maya Arulpragasam is?one of the most polarizing figures in pop today

Ironically, /\/\/\Y/\ is actually less steeped in the iconography of terror and revolution than her previous work; there is a song called “Teqkilla” but nary a Molotov cocktail gets flung. It’s easy to credit this shift to a savvy assessment of her fans’ rosier Obama-era worldview. Those close to her credit the shift to something more basic that isn’t easy to discern from outside. Confrontational videos and guerilla media tactics aside, her life is more normal than ever.

“She’s content now,” says Rusko, who lived in the L.A. home she shares with Bronf-man and traveled with her to Hawaii while recording /\/\/\Y/\. “Her life is a lot more settled now. She’s got the baby. When we were recording, she’d do vocals, then go upstairs to be with the baby for a couple hours. There wasn’t much drama.”

It shouldn’t be shocking that the less hard-knock her life has gotten the more hits she’s taken and the more paranoid of the press she’s become. When M.I.A. first arrived in 2005, the gorgeous, impossibly cool singer with the exotic background and “freedom fighter” father made for ideal copy. Five years later, the image has flipped. In the lengthy Times Magazine profile, writer Lynn Hirschberg mustered a wide range of evidence (the food she eats, the house she lives in, the way in which she gave birth) to imply a disconnect between M.I.A.’s radical political rhetoric and her comfortable lifestyle. M.I.A., who sings, “I fight the ones that fight me” on “Lovealot,” walked the walk by tweeting Hirschberg’s phone number and posting an incendiary dis track on the N.E.E.T. site.

“That writer was setting her up,” says Boots Riley. “An artist has access to media now that allows you to hold a writer accountable. Her move was brilliant.”

The track is at once confrontational and wounded. Titled simply “I’m a Singer,” it gives off a sense of awe at the values of a world that cares about the words of a pop star and ignores the real suffering of real people. (“Babies lying in the ditch / Thinkin’ if they had a Kyte phone, you’ll see this shit”).

The old mirror paradox is back in play — scale, proportion, focus, all out of whack. “All I ever wanted was my story to be told,” she sings on /\/\/\Y/\. For someone so skilled at image manipulation, that’s hardly the whole picture. But if tomorrow night, the CIA black helicopters of her wildest fantasies really do swoop in and remove her to some undisclosed location for waterboarding and Justin Bieber–enhanced interrogation, and “I’m a Singer” was her final statement to the outside, its message would be clear enough: In the end, it’s really all just art.

This story originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of SPIN.