/\/\ /\ Y /\
By Chris Molnar | 15 July 2010
/\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A.’s third and so obviously worst album, is the sound of a devoted audience getting fucked over by a musical sociopath. On records past M.I.A. was still alluding broadly to meaning—tellingly political, one of the easiest ways to seem relatable without actually saying anything, like any successfully galvanizing speech, though muddled and often contradictory—but I, and most listeners I’d venture, were more than willing to fill in the gaps of her argument with the energy of the dancefloor. At one time she was an appealingly presented new artist with enough borrowed feeling to help her defense: “Jimmy” may have been a manic, uninspired cover, but the lovelorn call-and-response didn’t feel like a posture; the enthusiasm of “Paper Planes” overwhelmed the nihilistic money-and-guns theme, which with time seems more ominously dark than any gangsta shit. Now it is blindingly apparent, with the “Born Free” video and her nasty campaign against Lynn Hirschberg, that all this time M.I.A. cared about nothing other than self-image and the ruthless maintenance thereof. Can I help feeling betrayed in a personal way, manipulated, a way that only deepens upon listening to the bleakly self-involved, angry, staticky /\/\ /\ Y /\?
There is a profound lack of feeling in much of this music, bone-deep, one that makes Beyonce’s most “independent” statements seem embarrassingly vulnerable. Being crazy in love, or wanting a ring put on “it”—the paradox of the brassy delivery may not make strict logical sense, but the basic emotions are universal, just as effective when warbled by Antony as when backed up by Jay-Z. On the other hand, M.I.A.’s emotional palette is at most concerned with a kind of distant empowerment of the idea of the oppressed, reminiscent more than anything of Ivan’s empathy in The Brothers Karamazov, of a sullen, isolated love for the idea of people more than for, y’know, actual people.
These people (other than M.I.A.) appear even less often on /\/\ /\ Y /\ than on anything she’s touched before, generally as an unnamed “you” who, in their biggest appearance (on “XXXO”) merely exist as an abstraction “want[ing]” a disinterested M.I.A.; they are legion, these Hirschbergs who warrant in the artist either a shrug or bile, depending on whether they like her or not. “I really love a lot / But I fight the ones that fight me,” she repeats in a monotone on “Lovalot,” and the chilling emptiness of that sentiment is powerful—she may “love” as an abstraction, but if she mostly fights, what does that make her, or the album? A struggle against everything (success; capitalism; “freedom fighting”; being cool; not being cool; being and not being M.I.A.), one that with every successive album seems more like a dead end—struggle for the sake of struggle.
And so with /\/\ /\ Y /\ she has seemingly devolved past any hint of restraint. She is the embodiment of unhindered confidence, but there’s not a whiff of selling out here, just by and large impenetrable gurgles and randomly fading stomp-and-claps, sometimes congealing into Gaga/BEP-style monoliths (the paranoid, Twitter-referencing “XXXO”), other times into annoying rambles (the neverending, incomprehensible “Teqkilla,” a torture chamber of painful blips and industrial ambiance), and occasionally into songs like “Lovalot,” which is so narcotically shuffling it almost feels like it’s naturally expressing what M.I.A. so insistently broadcasts: increasingly empty slogans.
Tellingly, these slogans are less specific than ever, her political credibility worn awfully thin at this point. “Rubadubdub,” she murmurs over and over again on “Steppin’ Up,” “Like a genie I blow upon this song.” That could perhaps be clever in the middle of an ecstatic Young Jeezy hymn, but submerged under unlistenable bangs, clicks, and whirs, surrounded by empty rhetoric lightly affirming her already affirmed identity (“You know who I am: M.I.A.” goes the chant), it’s just a simile in a literal wasteland, eventually disturbing over four long minutes. I thought “Born Free” was a shameful Suicide rip-off until I heard it in the context of the album—here the “Ghost Rider” synths are so winningly current and exciting that she probably would’ve been better off pulling a Borges and just releasing the first Suicide album as her own. Wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. Diplo’s “Tell Me Why” sounds like he’s fighting upstream, frantically chopping and auto-tuning his way out of M.I.A.’s self-involved black hole. Even the flow of borrowed ideas, which one could mistake for nonstop creativity on Kala (2007), has seemingly been staunched, with the most obvious non-“Born Free” sample here a bizarrely immediate toll lifted from Sleigh Bells, the most high-profile signing to M.I.A.’s vanity label.
Which all amounts to the sad thought that there’s nothing left to steal; nothing left to say. The paranoid shadowboxing against those who would challenge her nonexistent credibility is what destroyed the enthusiasm that compensated for that nonexistent credibility anyway—pop music will always be willing to accept another fraud; dramatic persona-embodying is what culture is based around. It’s the narcissism that insists there was a real thing there to begin with that is repugnant, like a con-man eventually sold on the shit he’s selling.
In a better world, the entire album would be stricken from M.I.A.’s record— except for “It Takes A Muscle,” an oasis of unexpected feeling, reggae-lite and pleasant. “Someone come lay my worry / Someone come feel my pain,” she says; “Someone come and put me on my feet again,” she pleads. It’s a wholly unexpected gesture, and almost totally unearned. But as a coda, or a first step in a new direction, it’s priceless: a simple declaration of vulnerability and, dare I say it, humanness that has no precedent in her work. Undeniably trite (“It takes a muscle to fall in love”?), from her it’s still decisive, the one thing that lets me hold out hope that she could redeem what I enjoyed about Kala, that she isn’t really what she says, or how she acts, or what she says she isn’t, or how she doesn’t act. But if this were a better world, M.I.A.’d be shit out of luck.