Sound — 6
M.I.A. is the stage name for the British rapper of Sri Lankan heritage Mathangi Arulpragasam. She burst onto the scene in 2005 with the largely self-written and produced album "Arular," which won praise from critics for its mixture of genres and biting political lyrics. The album reached #3 on the Billboard electronic albums chart and made it onto the main album charts for the UK and USA.
Ever since, her albums have continuously hit the top 40 of the USA's Billboard 200 chart, though not one has cracked the top 5. In July, M.I.A. told BBC Radio that this would be her last album, though some doubt that she is really shutting the door on her career for good.
If this indeed is her last album, it will not go down in history as a sort of grand finale. In her BBC interview, M.I.A. said, "[this album] seemed like it wrote itself very quickly. I just had to go with it."
Man, it sure sounds that way. Most of the songs revolve around eclectic sound bites that are hastily fit to rhythms and then repeated for three minutes or so. It feels like her attitude was, "That little thing sounds cool. Let's make a whole song with that." However once past this stage, it seems little else was added to the songs.
One of the singles from the album, the aptly titled "Bird Song," is one of these bizarre experiences. Here there is some melody that sounds like a bird singing that is then repeated ad nauseam while M.I.A. raps one-line, rhyming, metaphors about birds ("staying rich like an ostrich"). "Jump In" and "Fly Pirate" are two more examples of this style.
M.I.A. gets back on track with her politically charged songs, which not only afford the lyrics a great deal of importance, but also, for whatever reason, bring the music back into a more conventional realm of simple writing with solid execution. On these songs, the rhythms are more suited for dancing and the melodies are hummable (kind of hard to hum a bird squawk).
When she sticks to rapping over a common rhythm and/or chord progression, it's easy to pay attention to the lyrics and just because something is common, that doesn't mean it is bad or boring. "Foreign Friend" and "Finally" are two songs written this way that are easy to like.
"Visa" highlights the virtue behind hanging on a catchy beat and letting it come back and forth without too much interruption; if the beat is good enough, then you can get a good three or four minutes out of it before it loses relevance and makes it becomes necessary to move onto the next song. Similarly, "Ali R U OK?" relies on an Eastern/Central Asian rhythm to carry the song, although, again, the beat is so interesting that it can do so without losing its initial luster.
Something striking about the whole album in general is its dynamic production; this album is certainly not vying to win the loudness war. Each sonic element (for example, the main voice panned center or twin harmonies panned to the sides or a bass drum or the bird sound) comes into the mix with its own volume and the other elements already present do not have to lower their volume to fit, rather the elements build directly on top of each other. This system often results in the beginning of a song sounding noticeably quieter than, say, the middle of the song, when all of the elements have been introduced and the song is as loud as it is going to be, but a lot of people prefer it this way.
Lyrics — 8
M.I.A.'s best lyrical moments come when she introduces a modicum of politics into her songs. One of the most admirable things about how she does so is the restraint she exercises. Her songs are not strangled by the politics, rather they are visited by them. It doesn't even feel like the point of her lyrics is to convince the world of her views. Rather, the lyrics come across as (relatively) polite musings about the current state of affairs that avoid the risk of insulting listeners who may hold a contrary view. It certainly helps that her voice is clear enough that the words can be deciphered on the first run-through.
Overall Impression — 6
Overall this album is fine, certainly tolerable, but not outstanding or memorable. Some of the songs are catchy and no one would object if any of them were played at a dance club or on the radio, but none are worth keeping or putting on repeat. M.I.A.'s strong suit is her political commentary while her weak moments come when she tries to experiment too far with her beats/rhythms. While this album doesn't make it painfully apparent that M.I.A. is set to stop recording albums, it will certainly not be the rallying call for her diehard fans either when they beg her to return to the stage in a few years' time.