M.I.A.’s career has been propelled by constant questioning: She’s used her music and her persona to slice preconceived notions about geopolitics, gender, and cultural identity to ribbons. She refuses to be boxed in by any demographic, whether it’s her ethnicity, her class, her gender or her status as a mother — almost a sin in the targeted-marketing era. Instead, she fuses all of these elements, as essential together as they are irrelevant apart. And if her boastful, stuffed-to-the-gills fourth album Matangi could be summed up with a single, driving question, it would be: “Why?”
Her answers are as thorny as the woman answering it. Her first album since 2010′s Maya — and since she became known to much of the world as “that woman who flipped off the Super Bowl” — is a high-wire act, balancing itself between clamor and self-reflection, politics and partying. Smooth assurance drives tracks like the sinewy “Bad Girls” (which came out initially on M.I.A.’s mixtape Vicki Leekx) and the confrontational “Warriors.” But there are jittery moments, like the riotously paranoid “Come Walk With Me,” which uses Mac system sounds as a percussive element and is half-love song, half-enticement to get off the Internet. “Y.A.L.A.” takes the party-rock stomp of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and stretches it to its breaking point, with M.I.A. interspersing political asides into her toasts. As that track fades out, M.I.A flips the acronym referenced in the title: “YOLO? I don’t eve’ know anymore, what that eve’ mean tho/ If you only live once, why we keep doing the same shit? Back home, where I come from?/ We keep being born we keep being born again and again and again/ That’s why they invented karma.”
“You keep on telling me you wanna have it all/ Tell me what for?” M.I.A. asks in a sing-song voice on the album’s midpoint, “Exodus,” and closer, “Sexodus,” both of which feature the Weeknd. This question seems simple on its own, but in the context of M.I.A. it becomes the question, which is why it closes out each half of the record. That it isn’t answered suggests that M.I.A. has more artistic work to do, which, given Matangi‘s heady blend of hip-swinging and bragging, revolutionary rhetoric, isn’t a bad thing at all.