M.I.A. emerged in 2005 with a debut album, Arular, so near to perfect it was hard to tell if it was all too carefully calculated or a complete fluke: a young woman from Sri Lanka by way of London explodes over irresistibly kinetic, relentless beats and proves herself an undeniable talent despite the fact that she can barely sing.
Her next album, 2007’s Kala, did anything but coast. It was challenging and all over the map, quoting the Modern Lovers and the Pixies, sampling the Clash and a Bollywood disco movie soundtrack and organizing a posse cut of rapping Australian aboriginal boys. And just when it seemed to have run out of gas commercially, its catchiest track, “Paper Planes,” landed in a trailer for the stoner comedy Pineapple Express and dealt the singer a massive hit.
Two years after Kala, M.I.A.’s world was very different. She’d married the heir to a liquor company fortune, lip-synced and danced onstage with very famous rappers while pregnant at the Grammys, given birth to a son, and gotten in a lame public fight with a reporter that involved accusations and counter-accusations about truffle-flavored French fries. In this environment, her third album, Maya, arrived with a thud. Reviews were lukewarm.
Pitchfork gave it a 4.4, complaining, “Everything that was great about M.I.A. has been stripped from this music.” Her frequent collaborator Diplo, who produced two songs on the album, gave an interview claiming M.I.A. didn’t care about the album (asked on Twitter why the sound of a toilet flushing is heard at the end of his “Tell Me Why,” he responded, “cuz [the] rest of [the] album is a turd”).
At the time of its release, it was difficult to forget all these clanging dismissals long enough to even listen to the album. Maya is abrasive, sure, but overall it’s catchy and compelling, as well as versatile in terms of tempo, mood, and volume. M.I.A. shows herself still very willing to experiment, and in the middle of the album delivers the one-two punch of the Suicide-sampling “Born Free” and the Sleigh Bells-assisted “Meds and Feds.”
One of Maya’s best songs was buried in its deluxe edition bonus tracks. The singer laments the effects of Internet addiction over an infectious beat from Baltimore-based producer Blaqstarr on “Internet Connection,” a sentiment all the trolls ripping into the album probably would have related to if they’d stopped complaining about it long enough to get to the end.