In a lot of ways, M.I.A. has become the female counterpart to Kanye West. Both of them are some of the most influential and creative hip-hop artists of the past decade, largely due to both being true students of music, picking from a variety of genres. Kanye has sampled everything from Ray Charles (“Gold Digger”) to Daft Punk (“Stronger”) and British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. has sampled everything from the Clash (“Paper Planes”) to the Sanford and Son theme song (“URAQT“). The two have pushed the envelope not just musically but socially, as both have used their music as a platform for social issues: Kanye has rapped about the injustice of blood diamonds (“Diamonds From Sierra Leone”) and the need for Jesus in our streets (“Jesus Walks”) and M.I.A., with her very international background, sees her music as the best outlet to express the plight and suffering of the Third World.
But with great boldness in their music also comes a great deal of controversy outside of music, as both have become polarizing for their inappropriate actions and comments over the years. Kanye has been scrutinized for the Taylor Swift VMA debacle, his George Bush-Hurricane Katrina comments, and a number of ridiculous self-proclamations while M.I.A. has come under fire for several politically controversial comments about the U.S., harassing a New York Times reporter, and most notably, for her new video for “Born Free.” “Born Free” is the first single off of her typographically titled third album /\/\ /\ Y /\ (spelling out her real name, Maya), and has stirred up tons of controversy and was even banned from YouTube for portraying racial genocide with lots of disturbing graphic violence. M.I.A. fired back, of course, by making the cover art to her new album her face covered up by several YouTube player icons, a blatant criticism of YouTube and censorship in general. However, even with the negatives you get with these artists, their music is ever important to today‘s musical landscape, and /\/\ /\ Y /\ is M.I.A.’s most sonically daring and explorative record to date.
On /\/\ /\ Y /\, M.I.A. turns down the dance world sounds of her masterful sophomore effort, Kala, in favor of a noisier, more avant-garde approach. “The Message” opens the album suggesting the Big Brother theory in our unbelievably interconnected society with alarm sounds and manic bass, before leading into the wildly strange “Steppin Up,” which combines the “Rub a Dub Dub” nursery rhyme with metal guitars and the sounds of a high school shop class to make a bizarrely alluring concoction. “Teqkilla” brings forth an absolute barrage of glitchy sounds, even sampling some of her own music. “XXXO” follows and is /\/\ /\ Y /\’s most hypnotic and club ready tune, although the album version doesn’t quite live up to the remix with Jay-Z that has circulated in the Web.
/\/\ /\ Y /\ also contains more rock influence than her last two albums. First single “Born Free” uses a sample from the experimental '70s post-punk duo Suicide’s “Ghost Rider,” which fits perfectly in this full throttle rock affair. Derek Miller, of newest sensation Sleigh Bells, who are actually on M.I.A.’s label, thrashes with his guitar on “Meds and Feds," which takes a cue from Sleigh Bells’ sound with its punching guitars and Earth-shattering beats.
Although /\/\ /\ Y /\ is a more brazen rock record than past M.I.A. efforts, it remains highly eclectic with songs like “Tell Me Why,” “It Takes a Muscle” and “It Iz What It Iz.” The Auto-Tuned “Tell Me Why” is sort of the anti-“We Are the World” as it has the choir and positive vibes of the star-studded charity jam, but the message is more about how people in this world never seem to change rather than a message of hope. “It Takes a Muscle” is feel-good rocksteady and a much-needed change up from the mostly dark sounds of the album, and “It Iz What It Iz” is M.I.A.’s swaggering take on modern R&B.
Musical pioneers often push our boundaries and our understanding of music, and throughout music history they have been bold, polarizing personalities, from John Lennon to Madonna to even Kanye West. M.I.A. is most definitely an extension of this, as she has discovered a vast new territory where one can infuse hip-hop with any genre imaginable, from ska to metal to Bollywood music. Her chaotic, sometimes dissonant sound is reflective of the chaotic state of the world today, something that can hopefully help draw us to action. Genre-defying and audacious albums like /\/\ /\ Y /\ are vital for the continual progression of music.