M.I.A.’s ‘Matangi’: Album Review

Patrick Bowman | November 5, 2013 6:16 am
When M.I.A. dropped the crushingly cool video for the thumping single “Bad Girls,” directed by frequent collaborator Romain Gavras, way back in February of 2012, it was positioned to be the centerpiece of her new album, and was hailed as something of a return to form after the aggressive, noisy, industrially garish hip-hop that marked much of her 2010 full-length MAYA. The primitive, Suicide-lifted hydraulic synths of the militant chant  “Born Free” (which was MAYA’s lead single) were replaced with a streamlined version of M.I.A.’s signature sound of Mid and Far East flavored hip-hop curated by mega-producer Danja (Britney Spears, Chris Brown). “Bad Girls” is almost criminally catchy and arguably the most accessible track of M.I.A.’s career behind “Paper Planes,” featuring a hook that, frankly, should be said more often by more people simply because it’s so badass: “My chain hits my chest when I’m banging on the dashboard / My chain hits my chest when I’m banging on the radio / …Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

With this, many of the Londoner’s (by way of Sri Lanka) fans and critics were anticipating her follow-up, Matangi (out ), to be something of a creative renaissance geared toward a bigger splash on mainstream charts, something Interscope has been hoping for since the surprise success of “Paper Planes” in 2008. Instead, there ended up being an 18 month gap between “Bad Girls” and the album’s second single “Bring The Noize,” a threat from M.I.A. herself that she’d leak the album and a resigned, cynical Pitchfork interview where she basically conceded that Matangi would be a fine resting place for her career, lamenting that a big chunk of the political views reflected in her music ultimately meant very little to the world at large. That’s the sort of world weary vibe M.I.A. has been putting out for the past two years and it’s reflected on the knotty, occasionally brilliant, somewhat exhausted 15 tracks of Matangi.

Besides “Bad Girls,” and to a lesser extent “Bring The Noize,” there’s no definitive anthem that almost assuredly Interscope was waiting for. Instead there’s a louder rehashing of the sounds that made 2007’s Kala sound so fresh and exciting in the first place: a kitchen sink mashup of cut-up sitar strings, layered blips of Hindu chants, Afrobeat drum work and too many other Eastern musical textures to count grafted on top of a loose contemporary hip-hop foundation. M.I.A. seems to have taken her initial musical philosophies to the ultimate extreme, forsaking definitive hooks for grinding beats and quick snatches of verses.

Long stretches of the album’s title track practically sound like a raging revision of Kala’s acerbic banger “Boyz,” while the mesmerizing throb of “Warriors” (wherein she raps “Warriors in a dance / Gangsters and bangers, we’re puttin’ them in a trance”) could be read as a rearranged and more abrasive take on “Mango Pickle Down River.” And while these songs almost certainly have the energy and globalized hip-hop feeling that M.I.A. has made her name with, there’s an underlying listlessness that’s hard to pin down, a feeling that she’s treading over the same musical ground because she isn’t quite sure what new direction to move toward.

Granted, there are occasions when she lets weird moments of off-center pop rear their heads to break up the somewhat punishing rhythms of Matangi, most noticeably on the airy oddity “Come Walk With Me.” The standout slowly shifts from sugary guitars and vacant lyrics toward a pretty standard beat drop for the song’s second half. And then there’s “Double Bubble Trouble” which is a pretty direct stab at the dancehall and reggaeton sound her former partner and producer Diplo has ridden to such dizzying heights with Major Lazer (produced by frequent Diplo collaborators The Partysquad). By the time her third single “Y.A.L.A.” rolls around, it sounds downright simple in comparison to the chaotic splashes that mark the rest of Matangi, buoyed by another dancehall-inflected beat from The Partysquad. Here, M.I.A. puts together some longer, disinterested verses (“Take a trip to Singapore / I need to earn like / I’m Julianne Moore” is not her finest moment) with a wheezing, parabolic flow that ping-pongs between honking digital horns and artillery drums.

It’s a fun song on the surface, but again feels like a photocopied version of M.I.A.’s strongest material, and even includes a weird, stilted coda that sounds like a freshman philosophy student reviewing Matangi out loud: “YOLO? I don’t even know anymore, what that even mean though. If you only live once why we keep doing the same shit. Back home where I come from we keep being born again and again and again. That’s why they invented karma.”

That sentence encapsulated the problems I had with Matangi. When you’re faced with an artist like M.I.A. who became so associated with making challenging, politically minded, but goddamn loudly awesome hip-hop, any lack of energy or interest on her part comes through the music very easily. Matangi definitely has it’s highs, but if M.I.A. is losing passion for her own work, it’s going to be harder and harder for fans to get passionate too.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Patrick Bowman