M.I.A.

Maya (N.E.E.T. / XL Recordings)

Phases & Stages

M.I.A.
Maya (N.E.E.T./XL Recordings)

The cluttered cover of M.I.A.'s third album speaks volumes. She's always gone for sensory overload in terms of aesthetic and message, but what are we to make of bad Photoshop? In the fickle Internet age, it's impressive the British/Sri Lankan artist has stayed relevant this long, especially since she found fame and fortune and currently enjoys a charmed life that clashes with her rebellious street persona. Now, Maya Arulpragasam's outrage at the "system" carries extra cushion, providing a stage for either indulgence or transcendence, and there's more of the former than the latter on Maya. No doubt she's a hustler, having created a "personal brand" while railing against the very medium that made her famous. Spectacular debut Arular (2005) and neon mash-up Kala two years later, with its singular "Bird Flu" and "Paper Planes," felt very much of their moment, like a social experiment that could only last so long. Maya's first half is lukewarm in comparison; "Steppin Up" is a novice club jam and "XXXO" something you'd hear shopping at Forever 21. Perhaps M.I.A.'s edging younger now that she's a mother: On "XXXO" she checks both tweeting and iPhones over some Beyoncé-level cascading synth. It's fun, fluffy, and has tween appeal. Then there's "Teqkilla" begging to be played at a strip club, and "Born Free," which, without the controversial video, is just a Suicide song repurposed as messy political allegory. It's a hot mess of half-baked ideas. The last half, with the exception of clunker "Meds and Feds," finds moments of clarity and introspection, like R&B slow jam "It Iz What It Iz." Auto-Tune aside, "Tell Me Why," one of just two Diplo jams, is perhaps the best here, layered with more innovative beats and a fuller sound. Could M.I.A. unseat her nemesis Lady Gaga and still be subversive? She's certainly eyeing global pop domination. Therein lies Maya's conflict.

**

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