M.I.A. is supposed to be a messenger, but the mission of her music is often obscured by critics’ and listeners’ schismatic view of her work. But before her war with the NFL, her allegiance with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or those goddamn truffle fries, she was a neon prism at the end of a long musical tunnel dominated by what we’ll call “The Bands.” Along with Dipset and DFA, the rapper, née Matangi “Maya” Arulpragasm, was one of the puzzle pieces that began indie rock’s distance from guitar rock and its constantly-evolving fascination with pastiche. She’s been Diplo’s muse, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Interesting People, and the only person to ever perform on the Grammys while practically about to give birth. But regardless of an astounding number of accomplishments — she’s the first artist to be nominated for an Oscar, Grammy, Brit Award, and the Mercury Prize, so take that, EGOTs — and her ability to craft some of the most interesting pop music of this century, she continues to confound and propel the public. This has conceivably less to do with her interests and inspirations than it does with the fact that people tend to be unsure how to receive those interests and inspirations, particularly because she is so often painted as a humorless solipsist grasping at “ethnic” straws. In a recent piece for Noisey, writer Ayesha A. Siddiqi nailed the realities behind this struggle:
One of the most entertaining and frustrating things about being a fan of M.I.A has been watching white critics struggle to articulate her style while challenging her right to the aesthetic she cultivates. Artists of color aren’t often recognized for their sophistication or intent. Rather, they’re ascribed a “primitive rawness.”
With her synthesis of diverse but connected motifs M.I.A gets dubbed “cut and paste.” Words like “patchwork,” “slapped-together,” and “scotch tape” are regularly used, and that’s from positive reviews. American critics, unsure of the cacophony of identities and experiences M.I.A offers, commonly project their own uncertainties onto her…
Instead of the gloomy faced oppression of “third worlders” waiting for first world sponsorship, she brings us their rhythms, colors, and slang. Instead of the stoic self-seriousness of pop stars with a cause, M.I.A. waxes ironic. And it confuses the hell out of people.
That confusion also hinders people from considering M.I.A. an inquisitive artist with her own agency. In a recent interview with NPR, she spoke about the Super Bowl bird-flip with cheekiness, citing the gesture as one with a religious message but also snickering while delivering the answer. She’s often stripped of that humanity, but when you experience it or accept it, you understand her better.
Nearly a year ago to-date, M.I.A. released an eponymous art book comprised of digital collages, video stills, nail art, and lyrics, among other media. To support it, the Brit-born, Sri Lankan rapper gave a talk at the Museum Of Modern Art offshoot P.S. 1 in Queens. It was right after New York City had been hit with Tropical Storm Sandy, many of residents displaced from their homes due to flooding and electrical outages. The presentation — primarily M.I.A. showing desktop ephemera on four separate MacBooks, each of which were used to craft a different LP — was held in a large tent-like structure in the museum’s garden called the Performance Dome, and she began the talk with, “It’s nice that I can show you my refugee ways,” a winking nod to the city’s circumstances as well as awareness of her own. It was a remarkable moment to witness. Here was a woman who had a years-long nebulous shadow cast upon her dating back to the release of her critically deemed childishly paranoid /\/\/\Y/\ and an accompanying New York Times Magazine profile by Lynn Hirschberg in which the rapper was lambasted for the contrast between her politics and her then-relationship with entrepreneur Benjamin Bronfman and, most famously, that she ate truffle fries during the interview. And in one swift welcome, the reality of her agency, not the portrait of artist as dumb activist, was on display. Now, M.I.A. has released her fourth full-length Matangi. The is album rooted more in spirituality than her previous work but is still indebted to her fascination with the Internet — “I didn’t go to an ashram, I went to Google,” she said about the record’s inspiration in the same talk — and it’s in equal measure as angry, boisterous, and adventurous as her debut Arular.
There’s a lot of material to consider when taking apart M.I.A.’s catalog, including remix EPs and her Piracy Funds Terrorism and Vicki Leekx mixtapes on top of her full-lengths. For this edition of 10 Best Songs, we’ll look at her four LPs Arular, Kala, /\/\/\/\Y/\, and Matangi.
10. “Pull Up The People” (from Arular, 2005)
“Pull Up The People” acts as a starting point for M.I.A.’s critique of the government. While surveillance and privacy issues are of high concern in a lot of her more recent music, poverty reigns over Arular. But what makes this track so great is its sparseness — naked synths loom under calmly delivered rapping, a prime example of how anger and tranquility can meld into power.
9. “Teqkilla” (from /\/\/\Y/\, 2010)
Industrial and dancehall were strange bedfellows before you-know-who made you-know-what, but M.I.A. trail-blazed making the odd combo palatable with “Teqkilla.” But it’s not just her ability to incorporate tinny, off-kilter synths with something both stark and danceable that make it stand out, it’s the lyrical tricks she pulls on the track, too. By implementing booze brands as romantic metaphor, she’s made something that could be misconstrued as superfluous party bunk into an insiders-only track. After she’s dismissed Johnnie Walker, Pernod, Captain Morgan, and Smirnoff, she raps, “When I met Seagrams/ he sent Chivaz [shivers] down my spine/ Got me on the dancefloor/ then we start to wine.” She is, of course, referencing her then-paramour and father of her child Benjamin Bronfman, whose father Edgar Bronfman Jr. is the Seagrams heir. On an album full of maligned experiments, this is one she got especially right.
8. “Bamboo Banga” (from Kala, 2007)
Kala feels like a relic in 2013. A lot of the material has aged poorly, songs like “Bird Flu” and “Boyz” sounding a little bit messy after hearing more of what meticulous soundscapes M.I.A. can construct. But “Bamboo Banga,” with its third-world roll call and Modern Lovers-referencing intro, transcends itself as mission statement for the album and can easily be a centerpiece for her career. It manages to be both propulsive and meditative, shows both her propensity for politics and pop culture, and is the perfect preamble for the LP with her most explosive hit ever.
7. “Born Free” (from /\/\/\Y/\, 2010)
In the M.I.A. and Suicide Venn diagram, decay falls in the middle. Both tend to favor stony vocals and festering synths, so her deployment of the band’s “Ghost Rider” for “Born Free” is an unrivaled example of her sample-selection excellence. At the time of release, noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells were her proteges and here teacher becomes student only to become teacher again. And despite her grainy yelp-rapping, the message is still clear: “I throw this shit in your face/ when I see ya/ cuz I got something to say.”
6. “Bring The Noize” (from Matangi, 2013)
M.I.A.’s no rappity-rapper but on “Bring The Noize” she sprays ferocious mouthfuls and delivers her closest example of “real hip-hop.” But even when she’s doing the old look how well I rhyme trick, she’s is still inherently herself, calling herself the Goddess Mathangi, who controls speech, art, and music. Other powers are invoked here, too, but it’s of the rave-synth kind. This is what you want to hear when sweat drips down the warehouse walls: a digital aural assault that skitters and makes you want to knock someone out as much as jam your fist in the air. Bonus points for wrapping it up with a Janice Joplin-referencing “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” crystalline coda.
5. “Matangi” (from Matangi, 2013)
If the title track from Matangi was on the version of the LP Interscope put on ice for being “too positive,” then they weren’t listening, because here M.I.A. sounds fucking pissed. “Matangi” is a little bit like a companion piece to “Bamboo Banga,” replete with an expanded list of her international auxiliaries and the same measure of muscular calm. But instead of dedicating the entire track to calling upon her people, she’s calling out everyone else. It’s not just the unnamed “look-alike[s], copycat[s], doppelganger[s], fraud[s]” she guns for, either, it’s Canada’s very own, as she follows it up with “Started from the bottom/ but Drake gets all the credit.” M.I.A. said that the process of figuring out how to be both an “art-freak person” and “spokesperson for children dying in the jungle.” If this is her avowal that she’s found it, it’s given her a lot of enemies to ward off, and she’s naming names.
4. “Bucky Done Gun” (from Arular, 2005)
There’s no doubt that the synths on “Bucky Done Gun” sound like they’re being shot from an Ares Shirke 5.56 for a reason. Another on the list of M.I.A.’s great apologia, the track is her defense of freedom-fighting but made euphoric with conga and horn samples. It’s also the best example of Diplo’s often criticized ripping of favela dance music.
3. “Paper Planes” (from Kala, 2007)
Who knew when M.I.A. crafted a hook about stick-up robbery that “Paper Planes” would ultimately be the cut that got her to, well, take all your money? Aligned with a strained sample of the Clash’s “Straight To Hell” and lackadaisical delivery, the song went from a fan favorite to beloved by people who have no interest in reading about Maya’s penchant for truffle fries. It also spawned 2008’s most power-packed posse cuts, T.I. and Jay Z’s “Swagga Like Us” featuring Kanye West and Lil’ Wayne, capping off ‘Ye’s short-lived trend for sampling indie rock’s cool girl rappers.
2. “Galang” (from Arular, 2005)
M.I.A.’s use of vocal codas are sporadic, but when she does it, they sew themselves into your synapses and stay there forever. The “ya-ya-heyyyy” at the end of “Galang” is not only catchy and gorgeous, it fuses folk-chanting with club music. The quilts that M.I.A. constructs are Emma “If I Can’t Dance To It, It’s Not My Revolution” Goldman-pop, political in both lyrical content and in her genre-melding. When the track was first released, electroclash was on its last legs and this effectively killed it, building jungle and dancehall influences on top of the genre’s signature synthpop alteration and making it world music.
1. “Bad Girls” (from Matangi, 2013)
This is how you make a comeback anthem: When it seems like the entire world is out to get you, you slap them in the face with an ascendant trunk-rattler that boasts boisterous “damned-if-I-do” middle-fingers bars. Originally on her Vicki Leekx mixtape, the Danja-produced track showed more pop-polish than any of M.I.A.’s previous work but refrained from stepping away from her agitated expressiveness. The hook (“live fast/ die young/ bad girls do it well”) acts as mantra, not just because of the stylistic repetition, but because she knows what everyone thinks and she’s proud of it. And while it doesn’t alter why it’s her best song, you can’t talk about it without mentioning the video, which featured M.I.A. ghost-riding a Dubai drag-racing car while file her nails. It’s a rabid statement of both femininity and feminism, a vibrant hybrid of her undertaking to mix both culture and a party. Mission complete.