In seems only apropos that Spin Magazine’s latest feature is aptly titled “Deconstructing M.I.A.,” following the often-times political musician’s flip of the bird at the Super Bowl this year. Even before the incident, Maya Arulpragasam was a polarizing figure – full of honesty and contradictions. Read the excerpts from the lengthy article below and head over to Spin to read it in its entirety.
I. HER MUSIC
M.I.A. has claimed that when she moved from war-torn Sri Lanka to London in 1983 at age eight, she only knew two English words: “Michael Jackson,” as if her beats-without-borders worldview came via some sort of Thriller-inscribed primal scene. When “Galang” hit in 2004, it worked a space between hip-hop, dancehall, and then-trendy grime, like the Slits meets rave meets Missy Elliott. Never much of a singer or dancer, she worked in the tradition of technically limited geniuses like Madonna and Miles Davis, who only used exactly the amount of talent necessary to make a scene. “She’s got a million ideas,” says Rusko, one of the producers on her new album. “When we record her, we fix some of the out-of-tune notes and keep some in. A lot of recording with her is happy accidents.” M.I.A. got her start as a London graphic designer and scenester, hanging with English pop heavies like Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and Blur’s Damon Albarn. In 2000, while working as Elastica’s tour videographer, she learned how to operate a Roland MC-505 drum machine with help from the tour’s opening act, smut-rapper Peaches. A large coterie of producers and engineers worked on her 2005 debut, Arular, but it still had the euphoric feel of a novice punching buttons and letting her chanting-rapping-trilling-spieling vocalese bounce off the sounds she conjured.
“Today, hip-hop is club music,” says Rusko, who notes that having M.I.A. on his résumé led to work on new Britney Spears tracks. “Hip-hop and R&B are looking towards club music for ideas right now. She and [ex-boyfriend and frequent collaborator] Diplo were some of the first people to do that. It’s the rule now.”
2007’s Kala was supposed to be the record where she went pro. Timbaland was on tap to coproduce (he ended up doing one track). But when the U.S. government denied her a long-term work visa, she regrouped and recorded throughout the third world, culling performances from Nigerian MC Afrika Boy and a 30-piece Indian drum circle, among others. On Kala, the sounds of third-world slums hammer at the gates of first-world pop; “I put people on the map that never seen a map,” she sang on “20 Dollar.”
In a sense, /\/\/\Y/\ is a map, a global picture of the matrices of technology, power, and money. The technology theme gestated during her pregnancy, where the housebound mom-to-be became obsessed with new media. (Google is thanked in the liner notes.) “XXXO” turns on a metaphor about flattened identities in the iPhone era; “Internet Connection” is a meditation on aloneness inspired in part by a three-hour bout with customer service; “Lovealot” is the story of Russian Islamic teen terrorists who met online; and the album-closing “Space Odyssey” turns the floaty phrase “My lines are down, you can’t call me” into a double metaphor for romantic disconnection and techno-alienation.
The music is as universal as the theme, less worldly in that it doesn’t use global beats but more of-the-world in that it plays off the pop music that most people actually listen to. It’s folk music for the iPad age, her most radical gesture yet.