Monday, 4 November 2013

Review: 'Matangi' by M.I.A.

Now, I'm not going to lie: I've always had a bit of a complicated relationship with M.I.A.'s albums. There are always some songs that are utterly brilliant and then some songs that just make me want to rip my ears off. It's nearly incomprehensible how she can be such a genius and yet so frustrating at the same time. In that sense, no matter how triumphant moments her albums have, they tend to be a bit flawed and unbalanced. And Matangi, one of the most expected albums of the year, is no exception to that.

On the other hand, it is exactly her unorthodoxness and leftfieldness that makes M.I.A. such a spectacular musician in the first place. It is her unconventionality that sets her apart from the rest of her peers, no matter how erratic it makes her output. Once again, Matangi is a perfect example of this. M.I.A. has a very unique way of mixing and matching different kinds of elements and influences in her music. For example, the album kicks off with "Karmageddon" which features a sitar intro before incorporating a wobbly bassline. This infusion of her ethnic roots and urban beats is a recurring theme in her music that continues on Matangi as well. The song then segues to the title track "Matangi" that recalls the exotic beats of her 2007 single "Boyz". In the beginning the song feels like a geography lesson with M.I.A. reciting a list of several countries before turning to dissing imitators and artists that lack originality: "Look-alike, copycat, doppelgänger, fraud / They ain't got nothing on me, now I'm getting bored / If you're gonna be me, you need a manifesto / If you ain't got one you better get one presto". Sharp-tongued, as usual.

"Only 1 U" is where things start to get bipolar: on the one hand, the song has a catchy beat and some nice lyrics about how "There's only one you" and how "your life is one of a kind". But then there's the annoying "ding-ding-ding-ding" stuff going on in the background. Also, I'm not a big fan of overly auto-tuned vocals and M.I.A. makes no exception. "Warriors" reprises the intro of "Karmageddon" before turning into a sinister tune led with chaotic synth riffs. Then, mid-song, the song changes style again, this time into a percussion-led laid-back sound, before picking up the synths again, but just briefly, repeating this pattern over and over again. Too bad the song ends up sounding like two separate songs forcefully stitched together.

"Come Walk With Me" was released earlier as a single, so we're already familiar with it but its sudden cheeriness still doesn't fail to surprise. Its lyrics are almost saccharine, for this particular singer at least: "Can I be your best friend? / Can I make it to the end?" The upbeat song features some playful MacBook sound samples (I spotted the Photo Booth shutter sound and the volume control sound effect) that it would honestly do better without. It's fun to hear happy M.I.A. tunes for a change, though. "aTENTion" features catchy instrumentals that recall the deep urban sound of artists like Disclosure but also has maybe one of the most irritating vocals of M.I.A.'s career, with her voice terribly choppy and auto-tuned, which is further used to annoyingly emphasise every time that the word "TENT" appears in the lyrics: "The fullest exTENT of my inTENT is to let you know what is imporTENT" etc. Nevertheless, even in its peculiarity it turns out to be a pretty fine tune.

But the album is immediately redeemed by the gorgeous, Weeknd-sampling "Exodus". It is a hypnotic number that easily has you hitting the replay button again and again - that's what happened to me at least. At the same time it also makes a surprisingly easy listen considering it doesn't feature any obnoxious sound effects or computerised vocals. Instead, it has M.I.A. properly singing herself on this fateful-sounding, mesmerising song. It is then followed by the lead single "Bad Girls", an even more hypnotising anthem. You all have heard this one before - it did come out almost two years ago, after all - but it still sounds every bit as fresh and exciting as it did back in the beginning of 2012. Even though the whole "live fast, die young" thing and the talk about "bad girls" are a bit of a cliche these days, M.I.A. still succeeds to deliver the sassy "Live fast, die young / Bad girls do it well" chorus with undisputed authenticity. The exotic-sounding instrumentals are incredible, and with its infectious hooks its addictivity easily rivals that of "Paper Planes".

"Boom Skit" is a funny little interlude that apparently deals with the racist treatment M.I.A. has faced in the United States: "Brown girl, brown girl / Turn your shit down / You know America don't wanna hear your sound". She also refers to the Superbowl incident and the subsequent criticism: "Let you into Superbowl, you tried to steal Madonna's crown / What the fuck you on about?" Then comes the reggae-meets-trap tune "Double Bubble Trouble". Aside from its cringeworthy name it's a really interesting listen that showcases M.I.A.'s well-known wackiness and hopping between genres within a single song. However, if she had stuck with the dub/reggae sound throughout the whole song it would be arguably better. But perhaps that would be just too conventional for her.

On "Y.A.L.A." (abbreviation for "You Always Live Again") M.I.A. ridicules the "YOLO" phenomenon where people do "stupid" or "crazy" things just for the sake of doing it because "you only live once"; a motto that comes from that awful Drake song. And she's doing this all in a very witty manner as expected: "YOLO? I don't even know anymore, what that even mean though / If you only live once why we keep doing the same shit / Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again / That's why they invented karma". I'm starting to believe she's really not a big fan of Drake's as she also slams him in the lyrics of "Matangi": "We started at the bottom but Drake gets all the credit / Paper route or life route, yeah we be ready".

"Bring The Noize" is rap tune that features one of M.I.A.'s personal favourite lyrics on the album ("Truth is like a rotten tooth / You got to spit it out"). And that is definitely something she's not ashamed or scared to do - just take her 2010 song "The Message", for example, and see for yourself how prophetical her lyrics were already back then, way before the NSA scandal was revealed. "Lights" sounds like an eerie nursery rhyme with childlike vocals and minimalistic arrangements. The penultimate track "Know It Ain't Right" represents the more instantly catchy "easy-listening" (if you can even use that term with her music) side of Matangi. It's a shame there's not more of that since sometimes all you really need is a nice melody and some catchy hooks. The album closes with a slightly altered reprise of "Exodus", titled "Sexodus". Fun fact: M.I.A. reportedly offered the track to Madonna who turned the offer down. Too bad for her, as it really is one of the album's best moments.

M.I.A. is not known to conform or accommodate, which is ultimately where it kind of goes down. There's lots of potential that is simply buried underneath layers of sonic experimenting. That's her audacious way of doing music, alright, but it does feel like a bit of a waste. Also, some of the material that tries to draw from "current" things such as trap influences (brought to the mainstream by that Harlem Shake thingy) on "Double Bubble Trouble" and the YOLO-referring "Y.A.L.A." do already feel a bit out of date - that might partially stem from the album's constantly delayed release. It is always rather risky for artists to try to stay 'current' as today's now is tomorrow's yesterday: that is, whatever is currently 'in' is doomed to soon be 'out' as well. That said, Matangi also features some of her best songs to date - namely "Bad Girls" and "Exodus", perhaps "Know It Ain't Right" as well. Being the straight-forward persona that she is, subtlety is a trait she rarely shows, but when she does it, she nails it effortlessly. However, most of the album is filled with frenetic soundscapes so ADHD that they make you hyperventilate. Which is really, really a shame. In the end, it is the unevenness of the album that turns out to be its downfall. Still, even in its flawedness, it does provide an interesting insight to the uncompromising world of M.I.A. 

2½ / 5

Try at least: "Bad Girls", "Exodus", "Know It Ain't Right"

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