The London-born Sri Lankan pop star M.I.A. earned critical praise for the vibrant, politically charged tracks on her first two albums, 2005's Arular and 2007's Kala — and hipster cred for her third-world back story. In recent years, however, her involvement with fiancé Ben Bronfman, the son of a billionaire and the father of M.I.A's child, has cast doubt on the authenticity of her supposedly political persona. The debate came to a head earlier this year when The New York Times' Lynn Hirschberg published a scathing profile of the musician and M.I.A. counter-charged that Hirschberg had entrapped her. (Read about the scandal here.) Now, with the release of her new album, Maya, the focus returns to M.I.A.'s music. Is it any good — and does that even matter when her persona looms so large? (Watch M.I.A.'s "Letterman" performance)
It's impossible to separate her music from her image: To my ears, this album sounds like "an involuntary spasm full of exploding, hissing, and banging," says Jessica Hopper in The Chicago Reader. It "tries to do so many things that it ends up feeling dilettantish and lightweight." That said, M.I.A.'s real achievement is her constructed, controversial image. Maybe this effort is best appreciated as an attempt to "make art of her contradictions."
"Making pop for capitalist pigs"
That would be fine if the album were any good, but it's horrible: Maya is a defensive, "shambling mess," says Matthew Perpetua in Pitchfork. If the album were a success, all would be forgiven; pop stars, from Michael Jackson to R. Kelly, have been pardoned for far worse offenses. "The social contract is simple: If you bring the hits, we'll put up with your shit," but, with this album, "M.I.A. has broken that contract."
This superb album overshadows doubts about her authenticity: This "might be the best and most mature album of M.I.A.'s career by a substantial margin," says Jack Hamilton in The Atlantic. Questions about the real M.I.A. go unanswered, but they're superfluous. Art "need not always be autobiographical."
"M.I.A.: Straight to hell and back"
I wouldn't go that far, but the album has some good moments: The album is a mixed bag, says Oliver Wang at NPR. Despite some "dubiously off-note" choruses better suited to frivolous singers like Ke$ha or Katy Perry, much of the album highlights her compelling voice "with its exotic mash of Kingston patois, Bristol brogue and Brooklyn swagger." And, enough with the discussion of her authenticity. "Pop figures rarely share an authentic self," and "whatever the distance between the life she leads and the life she sings, the sonic force of her music feels as real as we want it to be."
"M.I.A. returns, with A darker, harder 'Maya'"