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M.I.A. Dazzles, Confounds, and Infuriates Again and Again on ‘Matangi’

Taylor Hill/Getty Images
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: November 05, 2013
Label: N.E.E.T./Roc Nation/Interscope

Recently, I played M.I.A.’s fourth album for a friend who’s a big fan of the first two. “Best stuff she’s done in ages, right?” I prodded after a few songs; “Oh, she’s such a poseur,” my friend replied, before gradually acknowledging that her reaction had nothing to do with the music just played or with any music at all, but rather with M.I.A.’s (insert adjective or expletive of choice) public statements and behavior, which certainly don’t need to be regurgitated or debated here.

And therein lies the challenge: Unbiased opinions of Matangi will be almost as hard to find as jurors for a Chris Brown trial. It’s unfair, because she’s done nothing to bring this upon herself… Okay, she’s done just about everything to bring this upon herself, even when you look at things purely in musical terms.

After all, nearly five years ago, Maya Arulpragasam was on top of the world, cementing her global hit “Paper Planes” by sharing the stage at the Grammys (while eighth months pregnant) with four of the greatest rappers on Earth. And how did she follow that peak? With 2010’s interesting but nearly tuneless // / Y / (which nonetheless had its passionate champions), following that with a mixtape, Vicki Leekx, that many preferred to the album. Then, after chasing off all but her most devoted fans, she delivered her strongest single in years, “Bad Girls” — a song expanded from a tantalizingly brief two-minute track on the mixtape (and now included on Matangi, some three years after it first appeared).

And now, to confound us even further, she delivers the album that many people probably had given up waiting for.

Which isn’t to say Matangi is a smooth ride. Half the songs change direction abruptly in mid-stream; the tempos shift constantly; the album’s prettiest melody (“Come Walk With Me”) saunters gaily along before being completely upended by a sped-up, batshit Bollywood breakdown; some of its best music is undercut by its worst lyrics or, in the case of “Boom-Skit,” lasts for only 75 seconds; and the best rapping of her career (“Bring the Noize”) is paired with a cardiac-arrest beat. The lyrics are occasionally solid, but at their worst, they suffer from her familiar combination of conspiracy theories and wobbly rhymes: “I don’t often Twitter / They still see me as a threat-er” (“Lights”); “Brown girl, turn your shit down / You know America don’t wanna hear your sound … Looking through your Instagram, looking for a pentagram … Let you into Super Bowl / You tried to steal Madonna’s crown” (“Boom”).

What sets Matangi apart from // / Y / is that this record’s highlights are also career highlights. M.I.A. is a far savvier songwriter than she ever gets credit for being, with a flair for naïvely memorable pop melodies, although she often undercuts them with noise or some other musical disruption, the equivalent of drawing an ugly mustache on a lovely portrait. That fusion of accessibility and disruption works best here on “Come Walk With Me,” the goofy verses on “Lights,” and “Exodus,” her gorgeous, cinematic collaboration with the Weeknd. Her facility with hooks extends to vocal manipulation: The apparently Julian Assange co-write “atTENTion” has some monstrously catchy octave drops, while “Only 1 U,” which might be the album’s best song apart from the Danja-helmed “Bad Girls,” brilliantly makes hooks out of a digital stutter (“Only 1 U U-U-U,” “Muthafucka now I’m steppin’ in-IN-IN-IN!”).

Matangi is also speckled with moments of dazzling production, mostly on the Switch-helmed songs: the crazed sound collage that occurs three-and-a-half minutes into “Noize,” the mosaic of vocal elements in “Attention,” the multidimensional sonics of “Exodus.” The result is a rollercoaster of sounds that rarely goes where you expect it to.

M.I.A. never makes things easy. Like its creator, Matangi is flawed, frustrating, and occasionally confusing, but it’s also intermittently brilliant and completely unique.