Review: M.I.A. names album after herself, Hindu goddess with ‘Matangi’

Alexander McCall

English-Sri Lankan pop star Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., fell slightly from public favor in 2010 due to her album “Maya,” which was an aggressive, paranoid screed that got critically panned.

It had more to do with a small smear campaign in The New York Times, when a reporter painted M.I.A. as a pandering opportunist who appropriated politically provocative themes to sell albums.

M.I.A. was quick to sound off about the reporter, making her feelings known when she published the journalist’s phone number online. But for all her antics, the attention attracted to “Maya” was still incredibly negative.

It’s true that, from her star-making appearance with Diplo on the “Piracy Funds Terrorism” mixtape, M.I.A. has been about succinctly packaged provocation. Yet, she’s almost always done so to cultivate a distinct, arresting style.

This style – rhythmically dense, sonically adventurous and dance-floor ready – has fueled all of her releases. While “Maya” took her to darker places, it was a necessary experiment to pave the way for “Matangi,” M.I.A.’s first studio album since 2010.

Named after both the Hindu goddess of music and learning and M.I.A. herself, “Matangi” is a bizarre collection of pop songs formed out of digital shrapnel. At times challenging and chameleonic, it ends up being both confrontational and immensely enjoyable.

Granted, “Matangi” gets off to a bit of a slow start. The title track attempts to serve as a manifesto by way of parodying manifestos, but it lacks the taut production and sequencing that characterizes her successful songs.

The album’s early fumbles end up being in service to M.I.A.’s ambition for the album. She seems committed to keeping listeners on their toes and making them wait for powerful, catchy payoffs.

Some tracks plunge through four or more violent stylistic diversions, such as the ballad turned dancehall freak-out “Come Walk With Me.” Others stick to more comfortable styles, such as the reggae-meets-hip-hop tune “Double Bubble Trouble.”

The production is at once mechanical and colorful. Every distorted drum hit and chopped up vocal is cut up and arranged carefully, even if the end result is chaotic and slippery.

These sonic diversions are plainly similar to Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” another album that arranged cold, steely sounds into pounding, aesthetically fascinating forms.

“Matangi” doesn’t always approach the same level of inventiveness that Kanye does, but M.I.A. does reach a number of career highlights here.

Chief among them are the fantastic singles “Bad Girls” and “Bring the Noize.” The former projects deadpan, almost apathetic boasting while the latter projects the passion and courage of her early work.

“Exodus,” a collaboration with The Weeknd, is also quite good, reinventing M.I.A. as an existential crooner over a skittering, beautiful beat.

Some parts of the album grate, notably when Auto-Tune and repetitive rhyming bring otherwise interesting “aTENTion” to a grinding halt.

In the end, however, “Matangi” comes across as the most genuine the artist has been in a while.

For all its detours and constant trickery, it’s first and foremost a sprawling, playful pop album.

Rating: three out of five stars

REVIEW: COLIN MOORE, Senior A&E Reporter