M.I.A.’S Provocative Pop

In recent years, her controversies have been more vital than her music.

by Carrie Battan, ‘The New Yorker,’ September 12, 2016

Later this month, the inaugural London offshoot of Afropunk Fest—the forward-thinking musical event, held annually in Brooklyn, that explores race, identity, and visual art in black counterculture—will take place. Initially, the headliner was to be Maya Arulpragasam, the forty-one-year-old pop star known as M.I.A. The pairing seemed natural, if not inevitable: M.I.A., a Londoner of Sri Lankan descent, has long been guided by the notion that her music is inextricably linked to sociocultural concerns. And Afropunk organizers have begun to expand the festival’s vision to encompass more people of color, not just African-Americans. Yet the choice of M.I.A. drew immediate criticism, owing mostly to a comment that she had made to the Evening Standard, in April, about the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s not a new thing to me—it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the nineteen-nineties, or Public Enemy in the nineteen-eighties,” she said. “Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” Soon afterward, the festival announced that M.I.A. had been removed from the bill and replaced by Grace Jones.

By now, M.I.A. should be accustomed to this outcome. Her résumé includes a long list of controversial decisions, such as an online spat with Anderson Cooper over his coverage of Sri Lanka, an alliance forged with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and numerous disputes with her label. M.I.A.’s brand of provocation, once a source of admiration, has become a liability. At times, it can seem as if she had been deployed to test our claims that we adore disobedience, and that we prefer complicated, “unlikable” protagonists to predictable ones—or that we’re sincerely invested in the global concerns and musical styles that she doggedly puts in front of us.

This week, M.I.A. will release “aim,” a record that she says may be her last. It’s worth taking stock of the way that the world and the music industry have changed since she recorded her first songs, more than a decade ago. In 2004, when she released the mixtape “Piracy Funds Terrorism”—a clattering, irresistible whirlwind of squelching baile funk, reggaeton, and hip-hop—the major-label system was largely intact. At the time, young, untested talents did not yet have inexpensive access to the technologies that later enabled them to turn their homes into recording studios. Nor did they have online platforms through which to release and promote their music, and to quickly amass big audiences. Most rappers did not yet proudly wear skinny jeans, nor was it customary for them to sing as often as they rapped. Indie-rock fans held fiercely to their disdain for pop stars. And those pop stars had not yet grown comfortable acting as political provocateurs.

M.I.A. is not responsible on her own for these changes, but she has been in the vanguard of nearly every cultural and economic advance in music of the past dozen years. (She was even a harbinger of the surprise-album era, with the release of the excellent mixtape “Vicki Leekx,” with almost no warning, on New Year’s Eve in 2010.) At the same time, no one has struggled as publicly with the march of the music industry. It is difficult to sustain a reputation as a renegade in such a turbulent era, but M.I.A.’s taste for controversy has not wavered. Early this summer, out of disdain for her label, Interscope, she threatened to leak “aim.” This is a habit of hers. On “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” she heavily sampled her then forthcoming début, “Arular,” cannibalizing her own output.

M.I.A. has routinely—and sometimes rightly—accused major artists and awards shows of pilfering her aesthetic. She has a habit of dismissing the work of artists like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, whom she once called “not progressive, but . . . a good mimic.” At other times, she plays along with the pop machine, with varying degrees of success. In 2009, she appeared at the Grammys, nine months pregnant, wearing a gossamer dress and dark shades, to perform “Swagga Like Us,” with Kanye West, Lil Wayne, T.I., and Jay Z. Three years later, at the Super Bowl, with Nicki Minaj and Madonna, she sang their collaboration, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” During the song, she gave the audience the middle finger—a gesture that generated a $16.6-million lawsuit from the N.F.L. “Paper Planes,” the song that turned her into a genuine star, in 2007, was somewhat diminished by MTV’s censorship of the song’s signature gunshot sounds, a move that M.I.A. described as “sabotage.”

Insubordination is easier to pull off than innovation. In recent years, M.I.A.’s controversies have typically been more vital than her music. (On her new album, she samples her twelve-year-old hit “Galang,” in a song that sounds as fresh as anything she’s done in years.) She thrives when she is making a kind of thorny, slapdash style of global dance music that is, by design, hit or miss, prizing chaos and swagger over lucidity—not the kind of sound that can be easily guided to success by a major label.

But it’s tough to fault M.I.A. for her inconsistency. There is a double standard at play: audiences love her for her disaffected cool and her willingness to experiment, but they chide her when the experiments don’t go well. These days, M.I.A. gives off the frayed energy of an artist being dragged through a career she didn’t sign up for. She has always claimed that she had a greater interest in fashion and visual art but turned to music because it was a simpler and more populist way to distribute her ideas.

In this context, “aim” takes the boldest turn that it can: toward the poppy, the clean, and the uplifting. The jagged lines of M.I.A.’s patchwork sound have been blended smooth, yielding a sweeter style that she has described as “happy . . . another side of me completely.” She experimented with this approach on “Matangi,” from 2013, an album with plenty of inspired pop moments but also plenty of ungainly choices, like the years-too-late reinterpretation of Drake’s “yolo” motto as an awkward song called “yala” (You Always Live Again). “aim” is more at ease with itself. There are a handful of straightforward positivity anthems that wouldn’t sound out of place on FM radio: “Focus on staying higher / Now power up your lighter,” she sings on “Survivor,” a cloudless dancehall track. “For you know you are a survivor, survivor, survivor.”

Which is not to say that M.I.A. has abandoned her politics. In fact, in the breezy climate of this new record, her words take on a stronger narrative quality. On “Foreign Friend,” she examines the experience of refugees adapting to the West and the Westerners who collect their friendship like trading cards: “We climb over the fence / We don’t want to cause an offense / Then we get a Benz, flat-screen TV,” she sings. “Then we think we made it / Then we be your foreign friend.” The song lightly interpolates “Best Friend,” a recent hit by the rapper Young Thug, who took heat for lifting its chorus from the lesser-known female rapper Tokyo Vanity. M.I.A. reminds us of what she does best: borrow a familiar hook from a song with a complicated history, and reshape it to tell the story she wants.

And “aim” incorporates a giant pop star in a way that, for the first time, doesn’t seem ill-fated or contentious. M.I.A. and Zayn Malik, the former One Direction member turned solo heartthrob (a British Pakistani, and a Muslim), used the messaging program WhatsApp to write “Freedun,” a gentle electro-pop song with a cheeky message about the complications of freedom. Malik, featherlight, sings the breathy hook and then yields to M.I.A. “Send me your money and I’ll send you my song,” she says. “What you get is perfect, it took me lifelong.” 

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