M.I.A. – Matangi

Album Review by Bram E. Gieben | 04 Nov 2013
  • M.I.A. – Matangi
Album title: Matangi
Artist: M.I.A.
Label: N.E.E.T. / Interscope
Release date: 5 Nov

M.I.A. returns with a new album, this time with production masterminded in the main by longtime collaborator, Switch. It's as alternately as dark, steamy and dangerous as a war-torn jungle conflict zone, and as stylistically confused and over-reaching as the most pretentious catwalk fashion.

This heady mix of edgy couture, unabashed hip-hop swagger and revolutionary political sentiment has been her stock in trade since 2005's phenomenal Arular and 2007's slicker, dancier Kala, but since those two albums, arguably M.I.A.'s celebrity status and growing self-regard have gotten in the way of producing a track as perfect as Arular's Bucky Done Gun, or Kala's Bamboo Banga or Paper Planes. Unfortunately, Matangi fails to break that pattern – despite some standout moments, some tracks are so weak and self-indulgent that the likelihood of repeat listens is desperately low.

It starts out well, with Karmageddon, where M.I.A.'s voice is restrained to almost a whisper over a skeletal bassline and snare. It's a minimal approach that would have been interesting if explored at greater length, over the album. Then we're into the title track, where in place of a lyric, she recites rhyming pairs of what could be either past and present conflict zones or holiday destinations, paired with a chorus of seemingly random syllables. It feels dashed off, half-finished, a re-tread of past, more inventive moments like Kala's Bird Flu. Only 1 U provides the first real highlight, with M.I.A.'s tough bars chopped and re-sampled.

A dubious nod to former Dr. Dre affiliate The Lady of Rage feels more like a lift inspired by a lack of imagination rather than heartfelt tribute, and elsewhere her lyrics dissolve into platitudes ("Still chill up on a hill / Like i'm popping a pill / There's only one thing I want to feel" and "Tonight's the one / Because tomorrow will never come"). Her writing, even when it starts out inspired, often devolves into cliche. This is not a bar to enjoyment - it is a problem that has always doggged her lyrical offerings. But over the course of an album devoid of the kind of thrilling hooks that have powered her most inspiring work, the weakness of her rhyme construction begins to grate – a flaw only underlined by the apocryphal story that Julian Assange provided her with a slew of rhymes for 'tent' on the dire aTENTtion.

Matangi is nearly saved by Switch's production, cleverly drawing on M.I.A.'s rich cultural stew of influences, from Bollywood to Arabic pop to trap and dubstep. Warriors mashes these elements together with clever time changes and genre switch-ups, unfortunately marred by M.I.A.'s generic observations ("Warriors in the dance" – lifted from an old jungle anthem, and the gently-spoken refrain "gangsters, warriors, we're putting them in a trance"). The rhymes feel lazy, the revolutionary sentiment feels forced. On Come Walk With Me, Switch provides an uptempo beat verging on juke or shangaan electro tempo, which would make a fantastic instrumental. M.I.A.'s limp, uninspired ballad sits atop the beat uncomfortably. Exodus, one of two tracks with alt.R'n'B star The Weeknd sees her exploring synth-pop territory, and it actually works incredibly well, as does its twin, album closer Sexodus, and Know It Ain't Right, perhaps suggesting a direction for improvement on later albums.

Single Bad Girls offers more re-treads of past glories. Double Bubble Trouble's skanking dub peaks into low-slung trap, again succeeding because it all too briefly allows room for the beat to breathe without M.I.A.'s muttering inanely over the top about her "reputation" or some other such nonsense. Drake-baiting second single Y.A.L.A. actually bumps convincingly, again by keeping her lyrics mostly in thrall to the beat. Again though, she insists on dropping some clangers ("Play like Ronaldo / Hot like on Death Row") which nearly ruin the experience. Bring The Noise is probably the album's lyrical highlight, with M.I.A delivering bars which, although still riddled with cliches, are at least tightly-written, and delivered with ferocity. 

Nonetheless, Matangi is the sound of an artist cannibalizing her own back catalogue. As a result, digging out your copies of Kaya and Arular will prove more rewarding than a second slog through Matangi. What next for M.I.A.? Having developed a solid working method with Switch, and with her own label N.E.E.T. set up to discover new talent, the idea of her becoming a sought-after producer and mentor for young artists seems like it would deliver more gems than another album in this idiom. As fresh as she sounded in 2005, now M.I.A. sounds like a lesser artist aping M.I.A.'s style. She sounds like a M.I.A. impersonator. She needs new ideas, or to take a step back behind the mixing desk, or else she risks diminishing the worth of her considerable accomplishments.