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Sunday, July 18, 2010

M.I.A. - /\/\/\Y/\: B-

M.I.A. and I have had a troublesome relationship over the past few years. Before I started this blog and in the midst of building up my music taste and collection, I conducted an annual list for no one in particular of the greatest albums of a given year, collated from the top ten lists of every publication I could find. For both 2005 and 2007, M.I.A. made an appearance, which was fine. My problem was that, no matter how many times I tried to, I could not figure out why people believed her music was good. Her style seemed to take pride in collecting disparate (but not necessarily musical) sounds and throwing them into a single product. And, though I can applaud that kind of thirst for experimentation, time and time again I would find M.I.A.'s music to be, to put it lightly, annoying.

With that in mind, one would think I would give /\/\/\Y/\, M.I.A.'s third album, a much harsher score than a B-. For me, though, in order for an album to receive a rating less than that, it must offend me in some way. And, strangely enough, /\/\/\Y/\ never really "accomplishes" this. Nor does it ever particularly push me in the other direction, either. More often than not, the songs of /\/\/\Y/\ tend to go by, passively; never making much of an impression in general.

/\/\/\Y/\ can be divided into two distinct halves. The first, from "The Message" to "Story to Be Told", has a sound one can only describe as industrial and conspiratorial. If you're not hearing synths blaring like police sirens, M.I.A.'s heavily Auto-Tuned voice is trying its best to replicate them. There are times when you can literally hear power tools operating. Lyrics are either unintelligible or unintelligent. "The Message" makes a tenuous connection between Google and the government. A choice lyric from "Lovealot" ("They told me this was a free country / But now it feels like a chicken factory") can give you a taste of how laughably self-serious M.I.A.'s words can get. And the only thing particularly enjoyable of the lot is "Steppin' Up" if only for the fact that it goes all out in terms of self-aggrandizing bravado ("You know who I am / I run this fucking club"). And, although "XXXO" is, admittedly, catchy, it's a drop in the pan as far as saving this album goes.

It's clear that, with /\/\/\Y/\, M.I.A. was planning to make a confrontational album. The first six songs are by no means easily accessible and often give one the impression that they were crafted for personal exploration, M.I.A. telling herself "I really love a lot" as much as anyone else that's listening. With the first six tracks of /\/\/\Y/\, M.I.A. makes it quite clear that she could care less if you like this or hate it with a passion.

Which makes /\/\/\Y/\'s second half all the more befuddling. With the exception of the transitional "It Takes a Muscle", M.I.A. goes into almost full-on pop mode. There tends to be more singing than rapping or talk-singing and the synths and percussion that were once so ravenous in the first half soften significantly on songs like "It Iz What It Iz" and "Space". "Tell Me Why" even sounds like an explicit attempt to replicate the success of "Paper Planes", imploring "If life is such a game / Why do people all act the same?" over choir samples and bookended rimshots. The vague preaching trespasses dangerously into "Where Is the Love?" territory, and is a curious song choice for an album that made such an effort to be subversive in its first half.

There is one other exception to the second half of /\/\/\Y/\, though, and that is lead single, "Born Free"; appropriately, the album's highlight. A barreling Suicide sample sounds promising for the first few measures until M.I.A.'s reverb-saturated voice engulfs everything around it, ruining a potentially good song in an album that starves for just one. Keep in mind it is still the highlight of the album. My sentiments exactly.

/\/\/\Y/\ is the first M.I.A. album the I have given more than just a cursory listen to, so I don't really know what an M.I.A. album is supposed to sound like. The controversy over the "Born Free" video, the New York Times article, and the almost poetic criticisms of producer Diplo don't really have much of an effect on me, because they allegedly tarnish a reputation I never knew about in the first place. However, I do know this: If M.I.A. wanted me to hate /\/\/\Y/\, she fundamentally failed. However, if she wanted me to like this crap, she is sorely mistaken. Ultimately, I never experience any fanfare for /\/\/\Y/\ in any particular direction, instead allowing dud after dud to wash over me like any half-decent party album would. And something tells me that is the worst kind of description to give an M.I.A. album, because much of her allure relies on the assumption you care about what she's releasing. "I just give a damn," M.I.A. deadpans in "Meds and Feds". If only the feeling was mutual.


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