In 2004, M.I.A. burst on to the underground music scene. Singles like “Galang” and “Sunshowers” were bangers, and with the help of producer Diplo, the British rapper started to spread her overly simplistic message of peace and cultural diversity to the masses. Nine years and four records later, that message is still there, though more difficult to parse. While M.I.A.’s latest record, Matangi, clearly shows her to be an outspoken and vocal advocate of exploring world religions, pursuing peace, and striking back at big, oppressive governments, how she actually proposes to do any of that has become increasingly unclear.
It’s not that M.I.A., a musician, should have to solve the problems of the world. No one expects her to do that. What is expected, though, is that the rapper produce a thoughtful, cohesive dissertation on her beliefs, and to date, she hasn’t really done that. Songs like her 2008 single “Paper Planes” called attention to gun violence and what it’s like to grow up in poverty, but in that vague, “Isn’t it horrible? Someone should do something about it” way that acts like Lady Gaga supposedly shedding light on bullying and gay rights. While there’s probably something to be said for simply raising awareness about an issue, M.I.A.’s whole shtick is that she’s this persecuted, deeply political rapper who’s constantly being shut down because she’s too controversial. While her record label did allegedly delay Matangi for being “too positive,” that whole “me against the world” façade is beginning to look like a farce, even if (and, again, this if you believe M.I.A.) Matangi only got a release date after the rapper threatened to release it herself.
That’s not to deny the presence of good tracks on Matangi. The problem is that the record sat on the shelf for so long—recording started in earnest in 2010 and the LP was first scheduled for release in December 2012— that anything that may have once seemed fresh on the record now seems more than a little tired. Lead single “Bad Girls” is awesome, but was released and driven into soundtrack oblivion almost two years ago. “Y.A.L.A.,” a take on Drake’s “The Motto,” is a good idea, but, again, “The Motto” came out in 2011, and the concept of “Y.O.L.O.” is already so tired that even Hot Topic is selling shirts urging people to “stop f#@cking saying YOLO.”
Matangi also falters in its sequencing. The record doesn’t feel like a record. Rather, with its occasional short song snippets and disconnected tone, it sounds like a mixtape, and one that still wouldn’t be all that great. Opening track “Karmageddon” is one of those shorties and ends so abruptly at the minute and a half mark that it almost feels like the record has a manufacturing defect. “Boom Skit,” which runs only 1:16, is a great germ of a track, with its singsong “boom shaka laka” chorus, but it’s also just too damn short. The lyrical references to Eat, Pray, Love and Kony 2012 also don’t help.
Other tracks are too long. The record’s title track, “Matangi,” is a snooze at five minutes, even though (or perhaps because) it borrows liberally from “Boyz,” one of M.I.A.’s best-known tracks. “Warriors,” which is actually less than four minutes long, feels endless because of its frequent sonic dropouts and use of an “om” sample that absolutely cuts the track to bits. It’s a good idea, but the execution failed. “aTENTion” takes the trend even further, linking together disconnected puns using the “tent” sound with middling results. (“Don’t try to copy this ’cause it’s paTENT,” “There’s 36 chambers in my Wu-TENT,” “We’re alien, but we’re no muTENT,” “We be makin’ TENT out of your curTENT,” and so on.)
Still, Matangi isn’t unbearable. The aforementioned “Bad Girls” is a solid single, and tracks like “Bring The Noize” and “Come Walk With Me” harness M.I.A.’s signature globo-clash sound to danceable affect. There’s just not enough of that goodness to save what’s essentially a disjointed, overworked record. It’s unfortunate that for a record that’s taken so long to make and that has so much artist-driven hype behind it, the most interesting part about Matangi is still just its story, not its songs.