Six years after her last full-length album, AIM, British-born Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. has released her latest project, Mata. However, she has most certainly kept herself busy in the meantime. In addition to releasing a critically-acclaimed autobiographical documentary in 2018 and featuring on rapper Travis Scott’s Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping hit “FRANCHISE,” M.I.A has managed to spark controversy with her tweets supporting anti-vax sentiments during the pandemic, going so far as contributing to the outlandish conspiracy that 5G Internet was the source of the coronavirus. Claims like these prompted heaping amounts of backlash toward the rapper, but that didn’t stop her from adding more fuel to the fire. Just two days before releasing Mata, she posted a tweet comparing Infowars founder Alex Jones’s false claims that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax, to celebrities “pushing” Pfizer’s vaccines, questioning the vaccine’s efficacy once again.
When put in context with both the success M.I.A. received in the mid-to-late-2000s for seminal albums such as Arular and Kala, as well as her recent controversies, Mata feels like a nondescript blip in her career. In fact, this album features no stand-out tracks and none of the voice and personality the rapper has displayed in the past. Even 2010’s Maya, her harshest-sounding and most critically disliked album, features more personality and lyrical wit.
Sonically, Mata is a complete mess. Her voice is so heavily autotuned and devoid of any charisma that she sounds laughably drunk and tired. On her lead single, “The One,” M.I.A. fuses a reverb-soaked Travis Scott circa-2016 trap instrumental with some of the laziest lyrics put to mic that’ll have the listener fast asleep before it ends: “Why you looking for the one, one, one / When your search is done, done, done?” Tracks like the self-obsessed “Popular” will have listeners questioning what happened to the politically-charged and captivating lyricism of M.I.A.’s past material, especially with lines like, “Yeah, I love me like I love me, love me / Suddenly it’s about me, ‘bout me.” “F.I.A.S.O.M. Pt. 2” is also a headache, with M.I.A.’s sleepy voice on the chorus heavily juxtaposed with flashing beeps and buzzes, a loud chanting vocal sample and an obnoxious performance from featured artist Dale screaming at the top of her lungs, “Freedom is a state of mind / Whatcha gonna do with mine?” Every sound on this track is fighting for the listener’s attention, and the only clear message might be that whoever mixed this track should be fired.
Speaking of the mixes on Mata, some of the tracks are ruined by haphazard mixing, like “100% Sustainable.” This track is a nightmare, with M.I.A. rapping over a loud sung chant and handclaps which sound tinny and painful. M.I.A.’s voice is placed so far to the front of the mix that it feels like she is whispering into the listener’s ear, which clashes with the lazy mixing of the background production. She sometimes veers off beat —since the song is just her rapping over a background chant, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the worst way. Her voice also sounds incredibly off on “Energy Freq”: She is once again pushed to the forefront of the mix, and her monotone, nasal delivery on the chorus is robotic-sounding and annoying, especially after suffering through it for the third time in the song’s short runtime. It’s quite a shame, because the well-mixed thumping, percussive background instrumentation of “Energy Freq” carries some great weight and momentum, making it one of the more enjoyable instrumentals on an album full of duds.
“Zoo Girl” is another rare moment on the album when the production delivers some pretty catchy moments, like the wooden flute motifs played throughout the track. But its lyrics sound like something someone in middle school would scribble on a piece of paper: “Tell me why you cry, tell me why you lie / Things you’ve tried and how you stay fly.” These rhymes are so thoughtless and simple that they sound like a bad nursery rhyme. “K.T.P. (Keep the Peace)” also doesn’t sound horribly mixed, being one of the more light and radio-friendly cuts from the album. This is mostly because the entire song resembles M.I.A.’s biggest solo hit “Paper Planes” so closely, down to the beachy electric guitar soaked in reverb and the child-sung chorus. However, there are so many horrible lyrical moments to choose from on this track, from “I’m not fake like them / They’re like fake like when?” to “You ain’t gang, we ain’t the same / Step away, step away, don’t play this game,” that it lacks the same bite and swagger that “Paper Planes” has. The song as a whole ends up sounding goofy instead, saying a whole lot of nothing. If there’s a message in any of these songs, it’s so far buried in dissonant, ugly production and mundane, empty-headed lyrics that no listener will even bother trying to decipher. To all fans of “Paper Planes” or “Bad Girls,” or even fans of Kala: Don’t bother with this one.
Daily Arts Contributor Zachary Taglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.