British-Sri-Lankan provocateur, performer and producer (in that order) M.I.A. neé Maya Arulpragasam was making headlines long before the release of her pseudo-eponymous third album, /\/\ /\ Y /\. Performing big-bellied and on the cusp of contractions at the 2009 Grammy’s, lambasting Lady GaGa in NME, bashing Bieber via Twitter, and taking New York Times journalist Lynn Hirschberg to task over truffle fries, Arulpragasam has all but monopolized music publication news tickers in the present year. So when the heavily anticipated follow-up to the critically-acclaimed billboard-topping, genre-hopping Kala was announced, one could only wonder what surprises and salvos the Sri-Lankan superstar had up her seizure-inducing sleeves this time around.
The first indication of Arulpragasam’s digital agenda was the release of the /\/\ /\ Y /\ album cover featuring a black-and-white photo of her incarcerated behind the bars of a YouTube penitentiary, eyes-widened and vulnerable at the mercy of millions of mouse-clickers. An explicit stab at voyeurism and privacy issues in the vein of her conveniently-posted tweeting days earlier re: the CIA’s ownership of Google, and Facebook, the image at once victimized Arulpragasam and set the stage upon which her latest offering would unfold: the Internet.
If the mid-eighties Madonna found herself, “living in a material world,” Arulpragasam feels trapped within a “digital” one. In a meta-fictional moment of clarity, she decided to title the album, /\/\ /\ Y /\, an ironic self-reference that both acknowledges her own involvement within the digital domain and further, digitalizes herself, reducing her given name and identity to a series of key strokes and symbols comprised of forward and backward slashes. Enter “The Message,” the introductory track of the album, in which Arulpragasam herself can be heard typing vigorously her digital pseudonym, and summoning her “digital ruckus” by pressing the “Return” key.
It comes as no surprise then, that throughout the album, Arulpragasam seems intent on constructing and claiming identity. On the chorus of Rusko-produced “Steppin Up,” she insists with brazen assurance, “you know who I am,” amidst a cacophony of power-drills, chainsaws and palm-muted power-chords. The track borrows significantly from the abrasive post-industrial music of the 90’s, which further compliments the technological aesthetic of the album and prepares the listener for the schizophrenia and hearing damage that will inevitably ensue.
If “Steppin Up,” is Arulpragasam at her loudest and proudest, lead single “XXXO” finds her backpedaling, slightly uncertain, and perhaps unable to endure the burning gaze of the information age. A glossy pop song composed of swirling synths courtesy of Blaqstarr, “XXXO” masks paranoia in playfulness. Constantly conscious of how the public and media perceive her, Arulpragasam laments, “I can be the actress you’re determined to know.” The song, easily the most accessible of /\/\ /\ Y /\’s twelve tracks, is itself an “act,” in which she briefly assumes the role the public wants from her, only to tender her resignation letter from the pop star darling position with the following track, “Teqkilla.”
One of the many triumphs on /\/\ /\ Y /\, “Teqkilla” is a schizophrenic six-minute-plus, woozy wasteland of clinking high-ball glasses, handclaps, heavy-handed bass, tambourine shakes, and a Korg Kaossilator pad with a mind of its own, all slinking around the dirtiest, grimiest, dingiest, murkiest, filthiest dance-club beat dub-steppers Rusko and Switch can muster. Haunting vocals persist throughout the chaos and the clamor, and finally come to the forefront at the coda, which features a rare moment of minimalism on an album jam-packed with more samples, noises, bells, and whistles than a Manhattan morning commute. Other highlights include the Diplo-produced ode to Holland-based Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle,” a pleasant, joy-filled lark that floats along on its light-hearted simplicity and a welcome reprieve from an album that often suffers from taking itself a tad too seriously, as well as “Born Free,” a fierce, jarring, angsty, punk, rocker that propels along on clanging cymbals and a Suicide sample, creating a wall of distortion as a backdrop for Arulpragasam’s vociferous declarations of independence.
Unfortunately for every triumph on /\/\ /\ Y /\, there is an equal number of failures. “It Iz What It Iz,” an under-cooked slow jam with Blaqstarr’s fingerprints all over it, fizzles out shortly after it begins with unmemorable garbled vocals and rambles on incoherently in an amorphous haze. “Meds & Feds,” offers little substance outside of its ear-splitting sample of Sleigh Bells banger “Treats.” Arulpragasam’s vocals are chopped and diced, and her exposé about information politics and “growing up in a digital ruckus,” has become hackneyed and predictable by this point in the album. “Lovalot,” the only track that Arulpragasam takes full production credit for, flounders around on flimsy politically charged one-liners behind a murky down-beat, but fails to rival its predecessor “Pull Up the People,” in both rhythm and profundity.
Perhaps the politics are precisely the problem with the album, but the fact that we by and large expect political insight from an M.I.A. album is indicative of a larger issue at play here. A lot of the criticism that has been leveled against Arulpragasam has attacked her hypocritical housing decisions, her newly acquired Bronfman liquor fortune, and the purchase of certain food delicacies. Arulpragasam is an entertainer. She may have a penchant for provocation, but it’s unfair to expect more than entertainment from an entertainer. She’s witnessed third-world injustice first-hand, wants “her story to be told,” and has chosen music as her medium. The detractors of this album seem to be those who are too concerned with the “message,” that they overlook the music. As a scathing critique of “information politics” or an audible page of Pynchon-esque paranoia in a digital age, /\/\ /\ Y /\ undoubtedly fails. However, as an innovative album, with stellar production and true grit, it works.
Back in the 1960’s, war-protestors and peace-freaks looked to Bob Dylan to be the voice of their generation. He (wisely) shirked the title and the responsibilities inherent within shouldering the cross of an entire movement because he wanted his music to speak for itself. Today, this tradition continues. We want spokespersons. And we want poster-children. We want examples, and martyrs, and idols. From Arulpragasam’s own mouth, we want her to be somebody who she’s really not.
For someone as outspoken and controversial as Arulpragasam, it’s second nature for us critics to scrutinize every tweet, move, outburst, and interview, weighing each word and action by the standards of her political past. For the sake of her music, however, it’s probably best to let Maya be Maya, or even /\/\ /\ Y /\.