M.I.A.'s Complexity Problem, Or: How Many Ideas Is Too Many Ideas?

'MAYA' album cover

Since the publication of Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of M.I.A. in The New York Times Magazine on May 25 (the music media event of the year, for better or worse), each week has seen a little more information, and a lot of noise, about the rapper’s third album, /\/\/\Y/\ (MAYA from now on).

MAYA came out this week, and with it, the conversation ostensibly shifts from truffle fries to the success of the music on the album itself. But it turns out that MAYA, like Maya (which all music journalists are allowed to call M.I.A. because we're all exactly the same amount definitely not friends with her), is hard to pin down.

'Censoring An Iranian Love Story' book cover i i
'Censoring An Iranian Love Story' book cover

Part of that is how M.I.A. presents herself. As with most things M.I.A., the cover for her new album, satisfies her penchant for at-a-glance political uproar (is that a burqa made of YouTube playback strips?) that dissolves into confusing half-arguments upon closer inspection. Is the internet attacking her? Is it an emblem of suppression or religious identification?

Imagery of this sort doesn’t need to be complicated. As long as we’re judging covers, look at the jacket for Censoring an Iranian Love Story, a novel by Shahriar Mandanipour, which makes a similar point, but with a relatively laser-like focus.

Clearer, or simpler, isn’t always better. M.I.A. is playing with ideas of what being a global pop star means, and she’s under no obligation to explain her ideas to her audience.

In her very sympathetic review in the L.A. Times, Ann Powers suggested that MAYA might be a transitional album: "it feels like a serious artist's sometimes tentative but very promising step toward a broader vision of herself." If that's true, some critics seem to be having a hard time making the transition with her.

Her first two albums, Arular and Kala, were both praised for being omnivorous grab-bags stitched together by the personality and fire of an artist who placed the entire world of pop in a blender; MAYA, on the other hand, is “a shambling mess,” according to Pitchfork’s Matthew Perpetua, who nails the anti-MAYA line: the album's “cacophony doesn't signify much of anything, aside from perhaps a desire to seem confrontational and daring.”

Maybe M.I.A.’s message never made sense. But is it possible that the inconsistencies that some critics forgave on her earlier recordings are the same weaknesses now derided on MAYA?

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