Despite underperforming sales of 2010’s Maya, English-Sri Lankan provocateur M.I.A. claimed last year that Interscope had postponed the release of her fourth album, Matangi, because it was far too commercial to fit in with her “public enemy number one” status.
The unlikelihood of a major record company actively encouraging one of their signings to reject the mainstream, not to mention the improbability of an artist renowned for bowing down to no-one meekly caving in to their demands, suggests that the 38-year-old may be slightly embellishing the truth. But whatever the reasons behind the delay, M.I.A has undoubtedly used the extra time wisely as Matangi is by far her most thrilling, if typically schizophrenic, album to date.
The positive streak which allegedly caused all the behind-the-scenes troubles is still evident. Indeed, “Y.A.L.A.” virtually has its cake and eats it by mocking Drake’s hedonistic philosophy on a straight-up club banger. “Warriors” hints at M.I.A.’s new-found spirituality as she attempts to put all the “gangsters and bangers” of the world into a trance with the help of a hypnotic mystical chant. Elsewhere, based on a sample of The Weeknd’s “Lonely Star,” the gorgeous R&B of “Exodus” is possibly the most melodic tune of her career.
M.I.A. also appears to have rediscovered the sense of humour that made the likes of Arular and Kala so engaging. On “Boom Skit,” she puts forward the tongue-in-cheek theory that the furor surrounding her middle finger salute at the Super Bowl was in fact orchestrated by “The Man” to prevent her from overthrowing Madonna as the Queen of Pop. Also, on the title track, a chaotic jungle-led take on Britney Spears’ “Womanizer,” she cheekily describes her army of imitators as the sorbet to her ice cream.
But whether she’s appeasing her label or not, M.I.A. hasn’t abandoned her signature political rhetoric and senses-assaulting sound either. Named after Public Enemy’s militant classic, “Bring The Noize” is an abrasive blend of twisted samples, tribal beats and stuttering vocal loops which lends its support to the Wikileaks movement. “Only 1 U,” a twisted slice of dancehall which comes equipped with a bizarre Crazy Frog-esque ding-ding-hook, lurches from loved-up sentiments to global economic predictions to doom-laden prophecies.
An often exhausting listen, Matangi is perhaps best experienced in small doses. But if it is in fact the result of record label interference, then M.I.A. should definitely learn to compromise more often.