A week prior to its July 13th release, M.I.A.’s new album, /\/\/\Y/_ (or _Maya), was made available streaming on the artist's MySpace page. The agitprop-meets-cyberpunk video for “Born Free” is the most inspiring thing I’ve seen all year (a clear indication that M.I.A.’s message is as much visual as it is aural), and my guess was that her latest effort would be the most overtly conceptual album that M.I.A. has recorded.
The first track, "The Message," begins with the sound of keyboard strokes that reminded me of early alternative rock heroes R.E.M. and experimental musician John Cage. It creates a rhythmic paranoid beat laid over a mechanical nursery rhyme. A male voice suggests that the body is no longer private property, and spells it out for the “connected” listener: “Headbone connects to the headphone/Headphones connect to the iPhone/iPhone connected to the internet/Connected to the Google/Connected to the government.”
“Steppin Up” will appeal to fans of Kala. It mixes laser and power drill sound effects with a melodic reggae pace while asserting an increasingly cyborgian identity. “Teqkilla” recalls “Boyz” for its hyperactive layers of hip-hop hooks and fluctuating vocals. This is a sexy club song, and would be the closest that M.I.A. settles into mood music.
Although she is stretching choruses and pressing the temporal limits of pop music, M.I.A. still has a knack for constructing tighter melodies, and proves it on “XXXO.” This track is about unrequited love, and calls a potential lover out for his down-low tweets. It’s a beat-heavy examination of familiar odes to obsessive love.
_/\/\/\Y/_ is definitely weirder than M.I.A.'s previous recordings, and it will be interesting to see where critics of her ability to balance political and aesthetic ambitions go with this album. Will the media continue to castigate M.I.A. for going too far beyond the pop star galaxy with her overt political agenda? If so, I just hope M.I.A. doesn't go the way of pop feminist icon Madonna and, in the words of bell hooks, "return to patriarchy."