M.I.A.’s penetration into the mainstream was inevitable; and like all new things that reach that placid yet rarefied plateau of FM radio and MTV, they eventually get the marrow sucked out of them. Sure, it started innocuously enough. Paper Planes was used to great effect in the red band trailer of Pineapple Express – but by the end of 2008, the song had been remixed into oblivion, was sampled in Swagga Like Us a T.I./Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration, and was featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a film that would eventually win Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. Yikes. That’s a lot to happen to one song over a short period of time. And as Paper Planes rose, so did M.I.A. herself. Hell, she earned a spot on the Time 100 in 2009. And you know what? She deserved it. No wait, scratch that – she earned it. She’s truly a trans-genre artist, someone who sees music as a world without borders, and it’s this thats made her such a unifying fixture in modern music. Bottom line? Despite all the exposure garnered from the success of Paper Planes, M.I.A. emerged through it all with her integrity and credibility intact.
Taking this all into consideration now makes listening to /\/\ /\ Y /\, an album that’s made of perplexing industrial vacuity, an even more painful process than perhaps it would’ve normally been. With these sixteen songs, M.I.A. has burned off nearly all the intricacies that made her music interesting (the creative sampling, the alternatingly simplistic and impenetrable production, the unapologetically overt politics), choosing instead to make third-rate club jams and faux-dub nonsense. This sort of defiant reversal might earn her some platitudes from a few blogs and magazines, but for me, I’m having a hard time reacting to /\/\ /\ Y /\ with anything other than sadness.
Let’s run down some of the singles, shall we? First up is XXXO, and man, for a song that’s under three minutes, it’s hard to picture coming up M.I.A. coming up with anything more generic and lifeless. I mean, seriously – awhile back, M.I.A. took Lady Gaga down a peg in an interview with NME, saying “She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza disco, you know?” (she concluded with, “She sounds more like me than I fucking do!”) – and now we have this, XXXO, a song that’s basically a Lady Gaga sound-alike. Err, what the fuck? Why even bother appealing to the lowest common denominator like this? What’s the point? The entire song is a mystery, from the shallow verses, to the overproduced chorus’, right down to the name-dropping of Twitter and the iPhone – as if anybody cares.
Things don’t get any better with the next song, Teqkilla, which I suspect is misspelled as a not-so-sly wink to inebriation, or as a broad appeal to ironic counter-culturalism; either way, it pisses me off. Teqkilla is the album’s longest song, but more than that, it’s also its most obnoxious, a damn unpleasant way to spend six and a half minutes. Now, I’m not about to put down music that extols drinking, a time-honored subject that has been covered in countless songs, and will be covered in countless more. But Teqkilla doesn’t just extol drinking; it feels like being drunk. And not the kind of drunk where you’ve had perhaps one two many at your friend’s house, no, the kind of drunk where you’re on the verge of blacking out, and you’ve stumbled into a basement club somewhere at 3am, and the only thing keeping you from passing out on the nearest surface is…one more drink. That kind of drunk. So yes, like I said, unpleasant. Hmm. Perhaps that’s what she was going for – okay, yeah, sure, by that metric, the song works, but who would willingly want to listen to it, sober or otherwise? That’s the question, and the answer is too depressing to contemplate here, so let’s just move on.
Finally, we’ve got Born Free, which, in addition to boasting a controversial music video, also happens to be the most interesting thing on the album. Working off a sample from Suicide’s Ghost Rider, M.I.A. crafts a wonderful industrial-punk hybrid here, and damn it all if it doesn’t work out perfectly: the crashing drums are stirring, the warped vocals are mesmerizing, the whole thing sounds as if it’s about to come unhinged at any second (it doesn’t, but I think that makes it even more intense, because we’re kept waiting for it breathlessly). Sadly, Born Free is an idea M.I.A. explores only once on /\/\ /\ Y /\, so all we’re left with is a group of songs that are underwhelming at best, and painfully empty at worst.
Representing the “underwhelming”, we have songs like Steppin’ Up, which feels vaguely like a conveyor belt remix of Pull Up The People, Tell Me Why, a song that’s notable only for being the one song on /\/\ /\ Y /\ that doesn’t sound as if it’s caked in decades-old grime, and Meds and Feds, a song built on the twitchty sampling of Sleigh Bells’ Treats. It’s not bad, really, but it’s agitating, and it only makes me wish I was listening to Sleigh Bells instead. I don’t have anything against music that’s agitating, if it’s done well (Girl Talk, Dan Deacon), but with Meds and Feds, it feels like M.I.A. is merely holding the sampling in Meds and Feds back from entering breakcore territory – and there’s nothing more disheartening in music when you can recognize potential wasted in favor of restraint.
And the rest? Well, most of the album’s other songs all share one of two problems; either they feel unrealized in some way, like they’re demos or blueprints or something, and not finished songs unto themselves (Lovalot, Believer). That, or they do feel finished, and there isn’t enough going on in them to make them worth listening to (songs like Internet Connection, Caps Lock and the aptly-titled Space). Most of these aforementioned songs feel like aural ambien; to listen to them is to hear them run out of steam in real time. Talk about unsatisfying.
That M.I.A.’s first two albums, Arular and Kala, were named after her father and mother, respectively, is perhaps one of the most oft-cited things about her. So, let’s break that down: Arular was simple, focused and hypnotic; Kala was colorful and lively. And /\/\ /\ Y /\, the album which bears M.I.A,’s namesake, an album that one would quite reasonably expect to sound like a scion of her earlier work, sounds like…this? Really? Now, I’m not putting M.I.A. down for not taking the obvious path here, but the fact of the matter is that /\/\ /\ Y /\ is largely devoid of anything special; it’s an album that could just easily have been made by anyone with GarageBand and a penchant for mechanized noise. I’m not sure where M.I.A. is going to go from here, but after taking in /\/\ /\ Y /\, I’m far less interested to find out.