Talking to Pitchfork last month, M.I.A. called “Paper Planes” “an accident”: “It wasn’t a song we made for the masses. It took two years to get popular, and there were many fights about censoring the gunshot sounds.” And she’s right; the track took a weird and circuitous route to pop ubiquity; it famously had to appear in the Pineapple Express trailer before the world noticed. But if “Paper Planes” was an accidental hit, it wasn’t an accidental anthem. Everything about that song, from the Clash-sampled lilt of the track to the guns-up explosions to the mocking singsong lilt in M.I.A.’s voice when she’s demanding your money, seems calibrated for endorphin-rush immediacy. M.I.A.’s best songs — “Galang,” “Sunshowers,” “Bamboo Banga,” “World Town” — are similarly huge and direct and cathartic. When she released the industrial noise detour /\/\/\Y/\ a few years ago, what bothered people the most, I think, wasn’t the shift in sound but the abandonment of that level of anthem-craft. And even though Matangi, her latest, represents, in some superficial ways, a return to the sound of her first two albums, it’s still not on their level in terms of vision and immediacy. There aren’t a whole lot of anthems. Instead, M.I.A. has done something I didn’t know she could do: She’s made a very good album with a relatively small scope.
In a lot of ways, time has been kind to /\/\/\Y/\, which beat Yeezus and Death Grips and a few other things to the severe jackhammer sputter-pop sound. But when M.I.A. made the towering “Bad Girls” a few years ago, there was a collective internet sigh of relief: This is the type of sound she was born to make. But “Bad Girls” sticks out on Matangi. It’s not just that the song is old, though it still feels like the relic of an older cultural period, almost like she’d thrown “Galang” on the new album just to see what would happen. It’s the song’s dizzy simplicity. The other songs on Matangi aren’t simple. They’re twitchy, anxious, distracted. Her hooks rattle and stutter. Sound effects rip through the fabric of the track. Tempos switch up and down without warning. M.I.A. loads the songs up with reference games — Sampling early-’00s crunk bellower Bone Crusher on “Attention,” quoting Masta Ace’s hoopty-rap classic “Born To Roll” on “Boom,” interpolating chirpy mid-’90s bubble-punk one-hit wonders Shampoo on “Double Bubble Trouble” — that keep playing on your sense of deja vu. Some of the moments sound huge: The massive trap-reggae skank on “Double Bubble Trouble,” the ravey synth-stabs on “Y.A.L.A.” and “Bring The Noize.” But even then she finds little ways to subvert the forward motion, to keep the songs trapped in their own mental minefields.
M.I.A. is, of course, a different person (or at least a different public figure) than the one we met nine years ago. She once came off like a self-made pop revolutionary in all the best ways. But since then, we’ve gotten to know her as a human being, and human beings are messy and contradictory things. After “Swagga Like Us” and the Super Bowl bird-flip and the Lynn Hirschberg beef, as well as the firestorms of attention that came with all those things, it might be hard to take M.I.A. at face value if she made another “Pull Up The People.” She’s also become a mom and seen her Sri Lankan homeland descend further into violent chaos, so image-maintenance probably hasn’t been the first thing she’s been worried about. Lately, she’s fallen in with WikiLeaks boss Julian Assange, who opened her recent New York show via Skyped-in lecture, and he represents a different kind of dissent and opposition from the iconic cool that M.I.A. presented back on Arular. Assange is about sifting through the chaos of digital detritus to uncover secrets and hold people responsible, and maybe that’s what’s going on musically on Matangi: The ADD chatter of the internet, the erratic stop-starting of a Firefox window with too many tabs open, the glitch that fucks with your heartrate.
M.I.A. named Matangi after the Hindu goddess of music, and she calls it a spiritual album, but the actual album doesn’t offer the calm focus that those things might imply. Instead, listening to it is a nerve-racking experience. But it’s a pleasurably nerve-racking experience, and that’s why it works. M.I.A. writes hooks, and those hooks connect even when she surrounds them with chaos. “Come Walk With Me” is a great playground-chant of a song even after the ribcage-rattling drums kick in. “Bring The Noize,” for all its from-all-directions vocal-filter attacks, works as a cathartic and visceral piece of work. “Exodus” layers the sexed-out energy of its Weeknd sample to make a gasping cloud of menace. And then, towering above it all, there’s still “Bad Girls,” which sounds as great as it did when we first heard it. I’d love to hear M.I.A. once again make an album of songs like that one day, but that’s not where she is right now. Instead, she’s made an album that reflects the intensity and disorder of her public life and all the forces at work within it, and she’s made it still, against odds, resonate as pop music. That, in itself, is an impressive feat.
Matangi is out 11/5 on Interscope.