Sri Lankan vocalist/activist/designer Maya Arulpragasam (aka M.I.A.) unleashes her much-awaited 3rd full-length, and it begins strikingly heavy with the clever agit-political intro, "The Message". She's off to a running start, already, which is followed by the proto-industrial "Steppin Up", which could almost be Skinny Puppy with a female vocalist. Granted, her use of abrasive sampled elements in pop isn't unique, but it's especially jarring here. She wisely follows the harshness with what could be the most commercial track of her career, "XXXO". Sadly, this one's a tepid electro-R&B bit that proves her pop savvy, but somehow seems concessionary to these ears. Or could it be she's having a laugh at radio's expense?
Either way, M.I.A. does better with the thumping "Teqkilla" - a more balanced mesh of odd experimental cut-up weirdness and bass-pumpin' club sounds. The remainder of the album is as varied as a pop album can rightfully claim to be, and that's certainly a good thing. "Story To Be Told" is a dub/electronic workout, while "It Takes A Muscle" is a slice of island calypso/reggae. "Meds And Feds" is heavy digital-thrash ala Atari Teenage Riot, but "Space" is light and airy ambient pop. "Born Free" is unashamedly based on Suicide's classic 1977 electro-punk anthem, "Ghost Rider", and it's this kind of clever, in-the-know, and hip pilfering that makes M.I.A. a darling in indie circles. The fact that she lined up Suicide's Martin Rev to play this track on a recent TV appearance lends even more credibility to her cause.
Ambitious musical lexicon aside, it's M.I.A.'s truly worldly outlook that makes "\/\/\Y/\" work so well, despite some slight mis-steps. She points the finger at international government politics, examines human rights, and critiques technology, but its all set to some amazing grooves and beats, so this album works both the mind and booty. Her considerable talents and wisdom are rare among pop stars, and M.I.A. challenges her audience, rather than placates. She is cause for great hope, and "\/\/\Y/\" is a true pop gem. (XL Recordings)