M.I.A.'s first two albums were named for her outlaw father and refugee mother, but now that she's an engaged mom with an L.A. mansion and everyone from haughty New York Times Magazine writers to the U.S. visa office on her tail, she's titling one after herself — or the batch of symbols standing for her real first name. It's a fitting choice, since the Sri Lankan pastiche artist born Maya Arulpragasam has always loved borrowing and manipulating signs: the flossy flash of hip-hop, the ferocious fuck-offs of punk, the clattering chaos of war zones.
On ///Y/ all of M.I.A.'s multiple personalities get aired out: paranoid raver (cautionary nursery rhyme "The Message"), digi-pop-star (deliciously slick "XXXO"), dancehall toaster (bouncy love song "It Takes Muscle"), and astro stoner (blippy daydream "Space"). The Diplo-produced "Tell Me Why" woozes like a delirious Animal Collective jam, while the hardcore "Born Free" rides an urgent Suicide sample as M.I.A.'s voice booms from beyond, like it's being broadcast from the PA system of a menacing prison.
The cultural grab-bag can rub ears raw, but discomfort isn't a side effect of M.I.A.'s music, it's a prerequisite. Chainsaws and drills whirl on "Steppin' Up" because thugging and thinking are hard work (even her kick-back drink "Teqkilla" is deadly). But M.I.A.'s biggest problem in 2010 may be that she can't find the off-switch in her constantly churning brain. As she chants between crunchy power chords on the standout "Meds and Feds," produced by Sleigh Bells' Derek E. Miller, "I just give a damn."
M.I.A.'s lack of apathy is listeners' gain, especially when she's out to show how all signs are mere slippery symbols — you can't even trust what you see on the printed page. Her proof: "Lovalot," the sing-songy electro-rap inspired by a tragic terrorist Russian/Muslim couple, where she slurs the lyric "I really love a lot" so it sounds like "I really love Allah," or more ironically, "I really love a law." Where's the truth? M.I.A.'s not telling, but she's never met a musical law that she hasn't loved breaking.