M.I.A – /\/\ /\ Y /\
Three albums and a couple of mixtapes in to her career and now people know what they’re going to get from M.I.A.. You’re going to get a bit of everything from her; a little bit of a rapper, a little bit of a singer, some twisted experimental beatsmith, a lot of a subversive would-be politico, etc, etc.
Just looking at the cover art for M.I.A.’s latest record, the Google-defying /\/\ /\ Y /\, you know what you’re getting with this album. You’re getting a high-concept hip-hop LP, lots of forward thinking and genre-testing tunes, and a hyperactive cultural identity that’s overdosed on modern media.
As such, going into_ /\/\ /\ Y /_\ there’s no longer that sense of surprise that made M.I.A.’s first two records, Arular and Kala, so exotic and interesting. We’re wise to M.I.A. now and you get the feeling that she’s run out of ways to shock us. But that’s never stopped her trying before and try she does on /\/\ /\ Y /\, throwing out all manner of stylistic curveballs at the listener.
The most notable of those curveballs is Born Free, the Suicide sampling, lyrical raging, distortion-fest that was released to online infamy with that accompanying video clip that featured ginger genocide. On paper, it’s an exciting and challenging experiment but on record it’s nigh-on unlistenable.
That’s not say that she M.I.A. doesn’t succeed in her attempts to jolt listeners because there are definitely moments on /\/\ /\ Y /\ where the outspoken UK MC pulls it off, such as with proper lead single XXXO which shows M.I.A. in full-on chameleon mode and affecting an almost pop-star sound.
Much like XXXO which shines thanks to its double-headed production touches from Rusko and Blaqstarr, the album owes its best moments to the dudes manning the decks which also includes regular M.I.A. hitmakers Switch and Diplo. It’s these producers that lay down the immaculate framework for M.I.A. to stomp around in and a lot of the beats on the record are just on fire.
Take the sprawling electronic freakout Teqkilla which twists and turns in every direction with Rusko’s signature dirty wobble or Tell Me Why with its super slick Diplo production and sample from The Alabama Sacred Harp Singers.
Elsewhere, Sleigh Bells mastermind Derek E. Miller contributes the fiery Meds And Feds which is full of clattering drum samples and shredding guitar riffs. It sounds about a thousand times better than Born Free. And just like he did with Paper Planes on Kala, Diplo may have his hands on the best track here with the languid, almost reggae-ballad It Takes A Muscle. It’s a genuinely unexpected turn even when you’ve come to expect the unexpected.
It’s because we get all these things from M.I.A. that the whole picture just doesn’t quite work right. She can do a lot of things and do those things pretty well, but her scattershot approach and desire to cram in as many influences, references and signifiers to the one place reveals means nothing is ever fully focused.
M.I.A. never quite convinces as a hipster-socialite with a militant heart, but when she can inspire some of the highlighted songs here from her collaborators and wear them well enough then /\/\ /\ Y /\ is worth the ride, bumps and all.