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Illygirl Steppin Up

Maya Arulpragasam is a musician who performs as M.I.A. Let's just start there, shall we? Of course she's also a woman, a mother, and a soon-to-be wife. Of course she's also a Sri Lankan, a Londoner, and now an American. She can also claim success in an array of visual callings--painting and video, fashion and design. But these identities wouldn't add up to much were it not for three albums's worth of M.I.A.'s music. The first came out in 2005 and is named for her father, whose cognomen is Arular. The second came out in 2007 and is named for her mother, known simply as Kala. The third is just out and is named for Maya herself.

These name games signify, and in complex ways--even Arulpragasam's idiot detractors rarely deny that she's led a rather eventful life. Not only did she spend a big chunk of her childhood as a Tamil in Sinhalese-ruled Sri Lanka, where 22 years of sporadic civil war had taken 65,000 lives by the time Arular was released, but she survived a divorce more life-or-death than any suburban malcontent could readily imagine. Her description may read like standard hyperdrama: "My mum is a saint, and my dad is insane. That's exactly what I am--I'm a split personality between my mum and dad. I look at them both, and they hate each other." The difference is that by "insane" Arulpragasam means that her father was in some sense or other a Tamil Tiger revolutionary, while her mother, well: "My mum brought me up going, 'Ah Gandhi, he's such a nonviolent man. You turn the other cheek, huh.'"

The biographical facts are murky and disputed. They have been for M.I.A.'s entire career. But they flared up anew on May 24, when The New York Times Magazine adjudged Arulpragrasam such a shallow person that it granted her 20 of its 56 pages, adding a fashion spread to an interminable, skillfully "balanced" hatchet job by a Hollywood journalist whose last musical subject was Rick Rubin in 2006. Replete with multiple references to Arulpragasam's impulsive politics, nonexistent musical training, and snippy ex-boyfriend, it spent less time on her beats than her clothes, gloated over new contradictions in re the father she stopped IDing as a Tamil Tiger in 2007, and misrepresented her psychological identification with the Tiger cause as ideological commitment. Thus it inspired megabyte upon megabyte of commentary--some insightful, some supercilious, and quite a lot the asinine resentment that greets any musician who dares suggest listeners introduce their overtaxed brain cells to world issues that are such a bummer. But the aesthetic ramifications of those facts are as straightforward as aesthetic ramifications can be: Arular is her father's album, Kala is her mother's album, Maya is Maya's album, and all three are M.I.A.'s albums. Let's just stay there, shall we?

Spiky and childish, playful and sensationalistic, Arular addresses her father's politics from the perspective of an exile thrust into the panethnic slums and bohemias of a Western metropolis. The misapprehension that it celebrates those politics reflects both M.I.A.'s conflicted feelings and her joyful triumph over them. Verbally, the giveaway among lyrics that do sometimes seem cavalier about violence is the armed struggle advisory "It's a bomb yo/So run yo/Put away your stupid gun yo." But the clincher is M.I.A.'s immersion in U.K. dance styles, in which the beats are generally as minimal as the cultural embrace is far-reaching. As tweaked by then-boyfriend Diplo, a Philadelphia electro wiz with a passion for the favela funk of Brazil's jammed shanty towns, the mongrel inclusivity of M.I.A.'s melange flips off the ethnic purity that so consumes the Tamil Tigers.

Arular was major, but sonically and philosophically it had a thinness about it that was blown away by Kala. Initially M.I.A. planned to collaborate with Timbaland, who then still epitomized hip-hop's ability to fuse avant-gardism and best-sellerdom. But when the INS wouldn't let her return to the Bed-Stuy apartment she'd rented, she had her usual second thoughts, and elected instead to record her mother's album all over the world--in Kingston, Port of Spain, Liberia, New South Wales, and Tamil-heavy southern India, with samples or cameos from Jonathan Richman and Indian filmi and a Nigerian-born rapper and Baltimore hip-hop and the Clash. Because the dance substratum was maintained this time by British house producer Switch, the sonics were somewhat thicker, but he was just technical help. The genius was in the textures M.I.A. laid on top, in between, and underneath--indigenous sounds and the tunes that go with them, which together tendered a generosity rarely glimpsed on the flintier Arular. There she was intoxicated by a world that had come to her; here it was M.I.A. who made the move, rendering her politics more affectionate and informed--and if anything more radical for that. It wasn't Gandhian, not hardly, but its embrace felt maternal nevertheless. Two songs made special room for kids--the subteen Aboriginal rappers of the irresistible "Mango Pickle Down River" and, by extension, Maya herself, reconceiving the Bollywood trifle "Jimmy," which she'd sung at grownup parties as a girl.

Having pressed to award Kala four-and-a-half stars for Rolling Stone, I wish I'd had the foresight to fight for five. Kala kept growing on me till I even dug the Timbaland remnant; it kept growing on me till it was my album of the decade. Soon, to my surprise and delight, the Clash-sampling "Paper Planes" was itself sampled on such hip-hop highlights as T.I.'s "Swagga Like Us" and loomed larger yet from the soundtracks of Pineapple Express and Slumdog Millionaire. Grammy and Oscar nominations behind it, Kala finally went gold this year. All of which makes Maya's music harder to hear for what it is. Tasked in 2007 with swallowing Kala over a long weekend, in 2010 I listened to Maya for weeks before I wrote, and once again it grew on me. It's spunky and dreamy, raw and sweet, a half-articulated lo-fi finger to the Grammy pomposity she exploded by shaking her babymaker nine months pregnant at the 2009 ceremony. But I still doubt it will ever resonate like Kala or Arular.

If Arular is about obsession and Kala is about respect, Maya is about self-involvement. Not that you can blame her, exactly. Whatever the added distractions of her union with Seagram/Warner heir and failed alt-rocker Ben Bronfman and the birth of their son, Ikhyd Edgar Arular Bronfman, Maya Arulpragasam finds herself in a dilemma few if any of her thousands of predecessors have escaped unscathed: she wanted to be famous, and now she is. So at the very least she finds herself surrounded by flatterers and unable to interact with the hoi polloi, with both problems compounded by the wealth she's marrying into. Historically these factors have made it hard to write songs about anything but yourself, and it's to M.I.A. credit that she tries and sometimes succeeds. But her successes are often ambiguous in ways they probably shouldn't be.

Don't begrudge her the two love songs, lyrical on the surface and unquiet underneath--"XXXO" proves a friendly earworm, and "It Takes a Muscle" is the most fetching thing on the record as well as a cover affording quick YouTube proof of her innate musicality. Don't begrudge her the lust song "Teqkilla"--one of its many liquor-name jokes justifies that gratuitous-looking "killa." Don't even begrudge her the star plaints--"Story to Be Told" and "Lovealot" exemplify the familiar trope in which the besieged celebrity merges with the besieged citizen, and the way "I really love a lot" morphs-or-does-it into "I really love Allah" is a nice provocation, especially given its "I fight the ones that fight me" tag. But there are too many of these plaints, and several stumble badly. "Meds and Feds" fails to bulldoze its own paranoia, "It Iz What It Iz" iz full of shizzit, and "Tell Me Why" hangs by the neck from M.I.A.'s emptiest couplet to date: "If life is such a game/How come people all act the same," oh dear. Climaxing the 12-track standard-issue album is "Space," about being so high "the stars are banging next to me." Lil Wayne, step aside.

But to stumble isn't to fall, and not only does every one of these tracks have its attractions, the deluxe edition's four extras include three excellent new songs. Since all were produced by Baltimore's Blaqstarr, they were presumably moved to the back of the bus for musical reasons, but I don't know what those are. I'm not supposed to, because the lyrics aren't all that's self-involved here. From the start M.I.A. has been down with fringe dance-or-die scenes and site-specific club sound systems, an acolyte of beatmaking strategies so subcultural that my strategy is to wait till they rise to sellout level so I can skim off the cream. This M.I.A. twice provided. But now she's betting that celebrity affords her commercial leeway. So though Maya's low-def beat-beds and sparse melodic content assert themselves eventually, all the non-adept hears at first is a junkyard strewn with sub-bass and electronic squiggles, virtual drums and real motorcycles, chipmunks and dybbuks, the occasional hooky chorus and one borrowed pop tune. Then at track nine the funk recedes and rock takes over: Suicide sample to Sleigh Bell's guitar-crunch to electro-march to electro-psychedelica. Maybe M.I.A. was afraid all the Blaqstarr music, which favors a slightly pop-friendly take on the rigorously primitivist Bmore ethos, would mess up this structure. But at least she could have replaced Blagstarr's flimzy "It Iz What It Iz," with "Internet Connection" and its hoo-hoo beat, or the eerie "Believer," or, most thematically, the trance-punk "Illygirl."

"Illygirl" is narrated by an abused 16-year-old tough in tight jeans who claims knowledge of Bruce Springsteen, "Billie Jean," plastine (??), and mujahadeen, and brags that she has a "dream" albeit not a "scheme." On her feet but still a little lost, she's the kid-sister-in-metaphor of the queen of club, sub, and dub who fronts the more accomplished "Steppin Up," royalty who could be M.I.A. but probably isn't quite: "blowing songs up" sure, "humping on my leg" not so much. What I like about this theoretical diptych is the way it frames the hip-hop legend of the self-made thug in musical terms that make historical sense--the toughness it situates halfway between gangsta lies and "Paper Planes"'s gleeful, spiteful, sad, relentless, and altogether brilliant "all I wanna do is take your money."

The notion that M.I.A. isn't politically meaningful because her motives are mixed and her ideas are screwed up is clueless about how pop music works--namely, all kinds of screwy ways. Five years ago, before Arular was out here, I thought I'd look into this Tamil Tiger thing, and was shocked to find that not a single member of my reliable panel of democratic-leftist geopolitics experts knew anything--anything!--about Sri Lanka. So I did some library and internet research and concluded that the Tamil Tigers were murderous ideologues and their Sinhalese overlords brutal beasts, with most Sri Lankans caught in the middle as usual. But what stands out in retrospect is that the Sri Lankan conflict was so obscure even though--here's a fun fact--the Tamils had invented suicide bombing. It's not obscure any more. And while that's due in part to the appalling slaughter that accompanied the 2009 Sinhalese "victory," it's also due in part to M.I.A.

It's the music of Maya that will make or break it in the end -make is my guess. But one couplet from the bonus "Believer" defines it: "I could be a genius. I could be a cheat./It's a thin line and I'm fuckin with it."

Like she says, it is what it is.

Barnes & Noble Review, July 12, 2010