M.I.A.’s third album, // / Y /, arrives piled high with the preconceptions of its audience. But let’s set aside Lynn Hirschberg’s New York Times Magazine profile/takedown and those infamous truffle fries. Let’s forget about whatever meaning we extracted (or didn’t) from M.I.A.’s “Born Free” video, with its simulated land mines launching little-boy legs sky-high in a cloud of vague polemics and computer-assisted movie magic. Let’s pretend for a bit we can separate her from her own image, even though in many ways that image is her real art, the daily emanation of a Warholian figure ghost-riding the zeitgeist. Maybe it’s still possible to simply talk about the thing that got people interested in M.I.A. in the first place—her music.
// / Y /, officially out July 13, is like a transmission from the ultra now—an e-mailed camera-phone video compressed till it’s cruddy and degenerated, a live-tweeting of capitalist culture’s foreclosure proceedings on the tar-blotched shores of American apocalyptica. This is not pleasure pop—it’s an allergic reaction to it, an involuntary spasm full of exploding, hissing, and banging, all uncomfortably close. For most of its duration // / Y / is a barrage, mimicking modern information overload, but its crowded jumbles of jarring, ugly sounds are broken up by scary expanses of what-if—a sort of creepy, hookless drift that gets at her dystopian vision from the opposite angle.
The album starts with the clicking of fingernails on a keyboard, but in lieu of the modem handshake that would follow if this were the 90s, we get drilling and clanging—the sound of something mechanical being pieced together. The first track, “The Message,” is less than a minute long, a stage-setting vignette that touches on a topic she’s been rolling out in recent interviews, like the cover story of the current Nylon—the claim that the CIA monitors or even invented Google. Here as there, she doesn’t elaborate much, instead just laying it out as nursery-rhymed fact: “Head bone connects to the headphones / Headphones connect to the iPhone / iPhone connects to the Internet, connects to the Google, connects to the government.” It’s less a well-argued thesis and more the sort of conspiracy theory you might hear in a dorm room after someone’s had a few bong rips.
On // / Y / M.I.A. doesn’t connect dots. She recites lists, mixing brand names with heavier signifiers—CIA, Google, Obama, Allah—in a flat, staccato rap. It’s hard to tell whether she’s genuinely trying to convince anyone of anything or just using what’s now basically the default setting in contemporary fiction and Top 40 hip-hop: relying on the audience’s understanding of the connotations of certain brands or products instead of doing any real character development. We get a portrait of a consumer, not of a person, via symbols like champagne, cars, Izods, and iPods.
The CIA is of course shorthand for the sins of American power, and that’s the focus of this album—America, or M.I.A. in America. (She settled in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles early in 2009.) Her previous albums spanned the world in sound and vision, setting their sights on the havoc globalism wreaks, but // / Y / is myopic by comparison. It’s as though she’s been sidetracked into responding to personal provocations, real or imagined. On “Lovealot,” when she tauntingly says “They told me this was a free country,” you almost expect to hear a bedroom door slam and a stereo crank up. She sounds petulant, like a pissed-off teenager. When she raps “I fight the ones that fight me,” it’s hard to tell if she’s singing as America or as herself.
Despite its statement songs and bombastic production, // / Y / often lacks gravitas—it’s so overloaded, and tries to do so many things, that it ends up feeling dilettantish and lightweight. M.I.A. gets on a roll, her music and her message pulling together, and then derails herself with misguided attempts at pop like “Teqkilla,” a hook-free tribute to whatever’s in the red Solo party cup you’re holding in the air. The chorus: “I got sticky sticky / Icky icky / Weeeed!” (Yes, really.) It feels long after two and a half minutes, and its actual length—six minutes and 20 seconds—represents a grievous overestimation of listener patience. Much of the rest of the middle of the album is just as aimless: “It Iz What It Iz” with its sour sung notes, “It Takes a Muscle” with its treacly synth-reggae uplift and some Auto-Tune to make it sound truly inconsequential.
// / Y / gives us a little of everything, and it feels like the potluck it is. M.I.A. worked piecemeal with six different producers across the album (and more on the editions with bonus tracks). The cuts with British producer and dubstep poster boy Rusko are interesting—his low-gear grind is pretty dazzling in any setting—but he doesn’t compose well for singers. His dark, wub-wubbing electro is so full of detail and WTF twists that it’s best taken on its own; despite his awesomely claustrophobic (claustrophonic?) sound, M.I.A.’s Bomb Squad he ain’t. The tracks were edited into song forms from recordings of epic jam sessions, and you can tell. With the exceptions of album highlight “Born Free,” which samples Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” and “XXXO,” a straight radio-pop construction, // / Y / sounds like something roped down from the ether and pasted together.
“You know who I am,” she sings on “Steppin Up,” and now and then it feels like we do. // / Y / is as close to a treatise on her personal brand as she’s ever gotten—there’s a lot more about M.I.A., a lot more first person. Or at least about M.I.A. as she wishes to be known: a world-weary pop terrorist, a truth-telling Robin Hoodrat here to disabuse of us our first-world ignorance, a siren singer who’s seen the rewards of pop-chart success and is alternately burdened with and enchanted by them. “You want me to be somebody who I’m really not,” she sings on the hook to “XXXO,” but who is she talking to?
Throughout the album she broadcasts her ID: immigrant, refugee, Pope hater, enemy of the bourgeoisie. Unsurprisingly she leaves out the part where she’s engaged to Ben Brewer, aka Benjamin Zachary Bronfman, son of Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. and heir to the Seagram fortune—but she can’t leave out the part where she’s an international celebrity, even if she’d prefer to. (“I don’t wanna talk about money, ’cause I got it,” she sings on “Born Free.”) She is perhaps more than ever doing as Robert Christgau wrote in 2005: making art of her contradictions. They’re what make her compelling, and why her rebel-girl image—calculated and genuine, with both halves magnified in the limelight—is so hard to take at face value. M.I.A. confounds us as a pop star and political artist, a slippery shape shifter moving easily between two positions we’ve learned to see as incompatible: she’s an enemy of America even as she makes pop for Americans.