Key Tracks: “Bad Girls,” “Bring the Noize”
There’s a line between controversial art for the sake of making statements and helping causes, and controversial art just for the sake of controversy. There’s a reason we follow Banksy’s every move, and there’s a reason why we left Marilyn Manson by the wayside many years ago. This is a line M.I.A. has been straddling for years, landing on both sides. And that’s just what this album does – it falls on both sides. Some tracks are musically abrasive and/or lyrically riotous. Others fall into the “we really need to do something” type of (l)ac(k)tivism. It’s a mess, and the amount of what works to what doesn’t is probably even.
The first real song on the album (after an intro), the title track, starts with a long segment of M.I.A. just naming countries of the world. There doesn’t even seem to be any point – Canada gets included. Canada doesn’t really have any of the problems M.I.A. is usually rapping about. Many of the tracks feel less resilient, they’re not calls to action but just recognition of the world’s problems. So they seem prodding and controversial, but they have nowhere to go. Also, given some unexpected problems I’ll get to, some of her references are just outdated. “Y.A.L.A” is the biggest example – one of the better songs, a direct response to Drake’s “YOLO” phenomenon, but it’s a phenomenon that’s already dead and has already been spoofed (by the Lonely Island).
Musically, the album is ambitious, maybe even to a fault. Beats drop away, volumes and tempos fluctuate wildly. It’s abrasive, and although it suffers from too many ideas, the ideas she had on paper were definitely successful. The album’s early tracks, and “Y.A.L.A” and “Bring the Noize,” even lack rhythms at times, jumping wildly from idea to idea. And with M.I.A. rapping over all of it, it’s a glorified mess, one that’s a lot more practiced and perfected than it sounds. “Matangi” doesn’t hold the tone, though, there’s a lot of more relative conventional songs that kill any kind of flow the album has. The last few songs sputter to a mediocre finish. Two duets with The Weeknd are wasted on boring songs (the first of which, as I was also wrapped up in an article on “Better Call Saul,” I forgot I was listening to). The better songs musically are able to grab current EDM and dance trends and turn them over into very original, often loud tracks. It’s inconsistent and sometimes boring, but the tracks that work musically are quite a marvel.
The faults of the record aren’t necessarily M.I.A.’s fault – she started recording the album in 2010. It was originally supposed to be released last December, before Interscope shelved it for being too upbeat (can you imagine?). So the album’s frustrating delays don’t help the quality (and it’s something to keep in mind when listening). Also, in a moment that falls way, way on the wrong side of the controversy for a cause vs. controversy for controversy debate is M.I.A. working with Wikileaks leader/convicted molester Julian Assange. Assange helped her write the album’s dumbest song, “aTENTion.” It all feels like a plea for, ugh, attention, with no real artistic merit. And that’s reflective of the album – it’s listenable, some songs are great, but it’s so inconsistent and groan-worthy that it just can’t stand up to her earlier work.
-By Andrew McNally (Post #100!)