“M.I.A. coming back with power, power,” the ‘Paper Planes’ rapper proclaims on Matangi’s lead single ‘Bring the Noize’, recycling a lyric from ‘Bamboo Banga’, the brilliant opener to 2007’s Kala. Her second album, Kala left critics and listeners stunned with its innovative mash-up of world music and hip hop, creating tracks that were simultaneously dance anthems and anthems for revolution. M.I.A. more than lived up to the promise that line suggested.
And she manages to accomplish the same feat, albeit in a much different fashion, on her fourth LP, Matangi. It didn’t always look as if M.I.A.’s return was going to be filled with “power, power”, however. After the success of Kala, she endured a troublesome few years, including a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband, being sued by the NFL after sticking her middle finger up during Madonna’s halftime show at the Superbowl, her third album, the sonically abrasive Maya, receiving very divided opinions, and threatening her label with the possibility of leaking Matangi if they didn’t stop delaying its release (allegedly, it sounded “too positive”).
Cast your minds back to January 2012 when M.I.A. dropped ‘Bad Girls,’ and its hypnotic hook, sassy lyrics and fierce and defiant video took the Internet by storm. As one of the best songs of the year, she came back fighting against her doubters, especially those who criticised Maya for being laughable or socially irrelevant (that’s not to say, though, that Maya is flawless – it has quite a few issues, in fact). And with Matangi not being heard until 22 months later, it’s clear how often the album was postponed. But it was worth the wait – “coming back with power, power” is very apt.
Opening track, ‘Karmageddon’, sounds almost spiritual, beginning with a floaty sitar and a chant of “om”, but things change suddenly when a throbbing rhythm and M.I.A. casually spits out lines like “you’re about to meet your karma”. Whatever the label thought was too positive about this record, it was probably not something they heard in this song.
Infectious title track, ‘Matangi’, is a return to the Kala era, both in terms of the music and lyrics. Exotic drums clap energetically and M.I.A. reels off a list of countries as if she was reading an atlas out loud. Produced by longtime work partner, Switch, it’s close to entering self-parody territory but the sheer fun and extravagance of the song saves it.
Along with ‘Bad Girls’, Matangi enjoys several brilliant singles. ‘Bring the Noize’ is a punishing, distorted cacophony of barbaric horns and pounding percussion, and displays M.I.A at her most angry and aggressive. It’s heavy stuff but surprisingly catchy.
‘Come Walk With Me’ starts off relatively pleasant, almost like if M.I.A. attempted bubblegum pop, before suddenly, and dramatically, blasting into a series of random, discordant noises, including a camera flashing, the volume sound on a Mac and what can only be described as the warning beep some vehicles emit when reversing. It’s also one of the most uplifting songs M.I.A. has ever done, with lyrics like “Can I be your best friend?” and “You ain’t gotta shake it/Just be with me”.
Finally, ‘Y.A.L.A.’ presents a retort to Drake’s YOLO, with the titular acronym standing for ‘You Always Live Again’ (it’s about karma and reincarnation, you see). Produced by The Partysquad, it possesses ludicrously entertaining humming synths with pummelling breaks and M.I.A. declaring that “alarms go off when I enter the building”. It’s a near-perfect slice of irresistible electronic rap and quite possibly one of M.I.A.’s best to date.
Elsewhere, normality tries to break through with the hazy, melodic ‘Exodus’, co-written by The Weeknd. After flipping the middle finger, she now points the finger on the provocative ‘Boom Skit’: “Brown girl, turn your shit down/You know America don’t wanna hear your sound”, as well as sticking it to ‘The Man’ (in this case, the Superbowl organisers) with lines such as “Let you into Superbowl/You try to steal Madonna’s crown/What the fuck you on about?” Despite a turbulent mix of moods and themes on the record, it does manage to sound altogether coherent.
Overall, Matangi is a step back to the inventive sounds that made M.I.A.’s first two albums, Arular and Kala, so exciting. There are still traces of her characteristic confrontational and politically conscious style, but there’s also a fair amount here that almost sounds jubilant… even mellow at times. Nevertheless, while there are more distinguishable tunes than on Maya, the album can hardly be called ‘easy listening’. It is, however, definitely rewarding. M.I.A. pulls out all the stops and chucks in every noise available to make a rapid, bombastic beast of a record that sounds like no one else working today.