Review: M.I.A.

November 12, 2013

The most miraculous thing about British rapper M.I.A.‘s fourth full-length album, Matangi, is that it’s with us at all. The latest studio offering from the controversial superstar was originally slated for release almost a year ago, but was deemed “too positive” by her record label and was pushed back twice before the 39-year-old performer took to Twitter and threatened to leak it online.

If M.I.A.’s third album, 2010’s Maya, divided audiences, Matangi is set to coax them back. This is the at-times contentious beat-maker back at the top of her game. From the opening slow-build of Karmageddon segueing into the winding, teasing title track, it’s clear that M.I.A. is not messing about. By the time we get to Only 1 U and its bold announcement of “Motherfucker / Now I’m stepping in“, it’s clear that M.I.A. is back in business and cockier than ever.

To say that these 15 tracks are sure of themselves would be an understatement, but that’s not to say they’re linear. The songs often change direction or tempo midway through, momentarily evolving into something different from how they began. While Maya drew from internet culture, Matangi references M.I.A.’s own body of work. She samples the hook of her own 2007 hit Bamboo Banga in the killer second single Come Walk With Me, an album highlight, while the rhythmic structure of the title track appears to be an elaboration on Bird Flu from 2007’s Kala. The glitchy, bit-crushed vibe that defined Maya is present in this album, but Matangi is less of an assault and more of a disciplined strike.

Watch: M.I.A. – Bring The Noize

Exodus, her much anticipated collaboration with The Weeknd, takes a slow, gorgeous alt-R&B journey away from the glitchier sounds of the album, while Bad Girls, the 2012 single from her Vicki Leakx mixtape, strangely but happily makes an appearance. Double Bubble Trouble is a dub reworking of – of all things – Shampoo‘s 1994 hit Trouble, while single Y.A.L.A. is M.I.A.’s answer to Drake‘s The Motto, with the pounding, synthy track asking “If you only live once / Why we keep doing the same shit?” It’s not the first reference to the Canadian rapper, with Matangi also stating “We started from the bottom / But Drake gets all the credit“.

The bane of the album is M.I.A.’s occasionally tedious lyrics, like on the obvious Boom Skit, where she raps “Brown girl, turn your shit down / You know America don’t wanna hear your sound” and “Let you into Super Bowl / You tried to steal Madonna’s crown“. There’s also the bizarre Sexodus, her second collaboration with The Weeknd, which is almost exactly the same as their first, with the lyric “exodus” replaced with “sexodus.” The purpose? Who knows? But with an album this good, let’s assume it’s some next-level shit we just don’t understand yet.

Matangi is completely schizophrenic and crazily self-assured, but it’s also no-doubt Maya Arulpragasam’s finest album since Kala. Its release may have been a year overdue, but it’s been worth the wait – M.I.A. is coming back with power, power indeed.

Watch: M.I.A. – Bad Girls

M.I.A.’s fourth studio album, Matangi, is out now.