M.I.A.’s baby’s heartbeat was recorded for her new album, ///Y/, according to her producer Rusko — but you can’t hear it above the album’s noise. Then again, it’s hard to hear anything on ///Y/ above the noise that’s been made lately about its artist.
Most recently, writer Lynn Hirschberg portrayed the “Paper Planes” singer as a know-nothing hypocritical agitator in a New York Times profile. M.I.A. tweeted her reactionary rage online, and soon all facts were lost in the ensuing bitchfest.
It’s true that M.I.A. drifts toward the overly explosive. It’s true that Hirschberg unethically quoted and wrongly portrayed her subject. But mostly, it’s just ironic that an Internet-fueled fight proved so distracting from an intriguing album that deals with the ever-presence of technology.
Leaving the cyber-squabbles aside, the best thing going for ///Y/ (techspeak for “Maya,” the singer’s given name) is its eclecticism. “Sound of a bomb blast, throw it in the bag,” M.I.A. pronounces above screeches of revving machines on “Steppin’ Up,” and she would. The track serves as M.I.A.’s manifesto: Beyond the repetitive and overconfident lyrics, she really can make music from surprising things.
The highlights of ///Y/ find M.I.A. spinning in different directions. Heavy-hitting single “XXXO” grinds on thick percussion and blaring beeps, but it’s also one of the singer’s pop star-iest songs ever. “You want me be somebody who I’m really not,” M.I.A. chants. Closer to singing here than she usually treads, the Sri Lankan star proves that she has a competent voice as well as a killer accent. And, delivering the chorus, her split-second pause between the X’s makes the combined letters sound like “sex,” or maybe “excess,” or “success” — any of which, really, makes sense for M.I.A.
“Lovalot” is a complete turnaround, soft and shuffling over a Middle Eastern-sounding base. More enunciation tricks turn “I really love a lot” into “I really love Allah,” a clever twist of meaning furthered by lyrical images of Taliban truckers, burqas and bombs on Mecca.
Dubstep-inflected “Story To Be Told” uses echoey nonsense voices and morphing, layered beats for an air of centerless nostalgia. Three minutes later, the techno-Caribbean groove of “It Takes A Muscle” lightens things up. And simple-minded mantra “Born Free” enters with a punch that it sustains all through the lo-fi whooping and creepy electronic pre-punk band-sampling, until its final yelp of “Bo- bo- bo- bo- bo- / Born free.” The common denominator between all the tracks is M.I.A.’s typical singsong repetitions of phrases that kind of make sense, plus tech references in both lyrics and music.
But although technology is supposedly the underlying theme of the album, the many appearances of computers, Twitter, etc. don’t actually seem to be saying anything about the hi-tech life. “My lines are down, you can’t call me / As I float around in space or the sea,” states glitch-y techno-popper “Space,” but when it ends, closing the album on a drugged-out note, it’s hard to tell if that’s a good or bad thing — ultimately, it’s empty.
So maybe M.I.A. needs The New York Times and all the hoopla that surrounds her. That punk-rebel attitude might very well hide ignorance, and her cool musical innovations could just be accidents. But whatever M.I.A. is saying, we certainly haven’t heard it before. And she yells it loud enough — and often enough — that it catches on fast.