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Tuesday, 12 November 2013 08:30

Album review: M.I.A. gets back in the game with 'Matangi'

Album review: M.I.A. gets back in the game with 'Matangi'
Written by Brian Benton
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For the past few months, M.I.A. has been just that. She first began teasing her fourth album, "Matangi," in November 2011, released the track listing in August 2012, and in August 2013, threatened to leak the album if Interscope took any longer to negotiate a release date.

When Interscope announced November 5 as the date "Matangi" would finally hit stores, M.I.A. disappeared and fans of the Sri Lankan-English musician began to wait. No updates. No more teasers. Just three months of M.I.A. being M.I.A., while the world waited for the highly anticipated album to finally appear. When November 5 finally came around, M.I.A. suddenly reappeared, in flying colors, middle fingers in the air.

"Matangi" achieves more thematically and technically than some of M.I.A.'s past work, with more attention paid to the worldly beats and less effort to work horns and gun shots into each song. Following a pattern of naming albums for her family members (2005's "Arular" is named for her father, and 2007's "Kala" for her mother), this album takes its title from M.I.A's birth name, Mathangi.

Matangi also happens to be the name of an important Hindu goddess, and M.I.A. has said the album has a greater spiritual influence than her prior work. Spiritual references have a role but always in an M.I.A. way, with lots of pop culture mixed in. "Y.A.L.A. (You Always Live Again)," takes a reincarnation-inspired stab at Drake's teen-motto "You Only Live Once," and in the more tame opening track, "Karmageddon," she raps that she "ain't Dalai Lama, ain't Sai Baba," but "you're about to meet your karma."

Of course, there are other recurring themes as well, ones that tend to always appear in M.I.A.'s music. Femininity and sexuality, for example, play a big role (see "Bad Girls," which you've probably heard in one movie trailer or another). Not caring about what others think shows up a lot, as well (there are at least two references to M.I.A's infamous Super Bowl guest appearance). And then, like most rap album, plenty of lines only serve the purpose of dissing other rappers or showing off clever wordplay.

Drake's a target, as are the Kony 2012 campaign and American racism. In “Boom Skit,” just 75 seconds in length, she addresses most of those. “Brown girl, brown girl, turn your s*** down / You know America don't wanna hear your sound,” she mocks. Maybe it's expected, but it's also something very few other artists could say with the same significance as when M.I.A. says it.

To call M.I.A. a rapper though, or more specifically, to call "Matangi" a rap album cuts off so much of M.I.A.'s character and misses what makes her unique. Sure, there are songs like "Bring The Noize" where M.I.A. spits at Eminem speed with Kanye West cockiness, but there are also songs like "Come Walk With Me" where M.I.A. is simply a talented musician, singing a catchy pop song with a trippy, urban beat.

Sometimes M.I.A. struggles with trying to do much, or trying to do things just because she knows they are too much, like performing at the 2009 Grammys on her due date for example, or naming an album "/\/\ /\ Y /\." On "Matangi," those moments mostly take place in the form of wobby rhymes or over-produced backing tracks. The song "Double Bubble Trouble" perhaps shows both of those things, with its one-dimensional title and closing EDM breakdown, surprisingly generic amongst the other Indian or African inspired beats M.I.A. puts forward on "Matangi."

"Matangi" has almost a half dozen producers, including hitmakers Switch (one half of Major Lazer) and Hitboy (who produced a lot of Kanye West's music), and maybe that contributes to the lack of cohesion throughout the album. While the album consistently delivers as a series of individual tracks, it's hardly woven together. The themes that exist come once every four songs, and the tempos and pace bounce around frantically, not only just song to song but also sometimes mid-song.

With 16 songs to choose from, "Matangi" certainly deserves a listen, but potentially a selective one. Some moments shine, and others make you wonder how they ended up surviving the two years of production. Like Kanye West's "Yeezus" or anything by Death Grips, the sound sometimes has too much abrasion and rigidness to enjoy listening to unless your full attention is dedicated to it. Luckily for M.I.A., parts of "Matangi" are so catchy that they really will capture your full attention.

Like a jack-in-the-box, "Matangi" takes some cranking and patience before it comes shooting out. But after that initial pop out of the box, not much more happens. The album is unique and peculiar, but some themes don't connect and parts of the sound seem more like glitter thrown on for effect. After a few listens of "Matangi," the specks of brilliance get overpowered by the parts that don't make sense, and we're left to start cranking again and wait to see what M.I.A. comes up with next.

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