2010 was a great year for music, between popular albums like Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now to highly acclaimed projects such as Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me or Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it makes sense why so many great albums managed to slip through the cracks. On July 7th 2010, British rapper M.I.A released her third studio album Maya (stylised as /\/\ /\ Y /\).
M.I.A had floated around top chart positions with hits like Paper Planes reaching number 4 on the billboard chart and selling over 4 million copies, she seemed destined to continue this path of success. The Maya album debuted at number 9 on the billboard charts making it her highest to date. Reviews for the album started coming in up to a month before release due to the album leaking in low quality online over a month before it’s official release. Reviews for the album were very mixed with many praising the album for the production and vocal performances but with many raising the point that the album would age very poorly due to it’s themes around internet culture. Pitchfork rated the album a 4.4 and branded it as “a shambling mess” and internet reviewers like Anthony Fantano scoring it a 5 but then 7 years later stating his opinions had changed and praising the record for being “ahead of the curve” and its themes around internet culture that are now more relevant than ever.
Just looking at the album cover we see M.I.A’s face being covered with YouTube play bars and the intention of this as well as the music seems to have been trying to convey how overwhelming the internet can feel. The album opens up with the song “The Message” which is a play on the “Dem Bones” nursery rhyme however instead of singing lines like “your toe bone connected to you foot bone, your foot bone connected to your heel bone” M.I.A completely flips the song on it’s head and replaces the original lines with “Headbone connects to the headphones, headphones connect to the Iphone, Iphone connects to the internet, connected to the google, connected to the government. M.I.A is often credited as one of the first people to have reported that the western government were spying on it’s citizens through the internet. At the time Pitchfork criticised the song “The Message” and referred to the song as a “paranoid rap” in what is now considered one of their most gross and tone deaf reviews ever.
One of the other politically charged songs on the album is “Lovalot” which opens with the powerful lines “They told me this is a free country, but now it feels like a chicken factory” The song discusses many political leaders such as Hu Jintao who was the Chinese president at the time and she also discusses leaders like Obama with lines like “Obama needs to love up Chen” in reference to Chen Guangcheng who is a Chinese human rights activist and he is also a prominent advocate for women’s rights especially around topics such as abortion. M.I.A reaffirms her rebellion when she says “Cause I won’t turn my cheek like Gandhi”, Gandhi was a huge an advocate for non-violent solutions and famously said “if your enemy strikes your left cheek, offer him your right”.
M.I.A’s (real name Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragafam) anti establishment approach and lifestyle is very unsurprising considering her upbringing and early life, her father was a political acitivist and the first 11 years of her life were heavily disrupted by displacement as a result of the Sri Lankan civil war, although she was born in London she spent lots of her childhood in Sri Lanka, before moving back to London In later life.
“Born Free” was a promotional single for the album and the video that accompanied caused lots of controversy and conversation online, she draws on her experiences as a child with lines like “staying undercover, with a nose to the ground, I found my sound” M.I.A has spoken before about how during the civil war her and classmates learned to duck and hide under tables and these lines also call back to the time she spent living underground while her family was on the run due to the government trying to persecute her father for his political activism.
All of this sounds great, the Maya album is genre defining and was very ahead of it’s time and influential regarding its views about the modern world so what’s the problem? Although M.I.A is often praised for her anti-establishment music she has caused lots of controversy online with her comments about vaccinations and has taken an anti-vaxx stance publicly many times. M.I.A’s twitter is a constant source of frustration for her fans since she often goes on controversial and dangerous rants and it makes it difficult for fans of her music to defend her and enjoy her great projects. Back in 2010 a few months prior to the albums release M.I.A did an interview day with The New York Times where they grossly misrepresented her as being a privileged and fraudulent activist and in response she posted the interviewer’s phone personal phone number on twitter which led the interviewer to receive lots of harassment. M.I.A would later gain support for criticising The New York Times for listing Sri Lanka as a top place to holiday not long after the civil war in the country had ended.
So 10 years on what has changed? The critical view of M.I.A’s Maya album has completely flipped with many people talking about music it inspired and it’s criticisms of government and internet culture that are more relevant than ever, how often do we hear terms like “fake news” and “data protection” online nowadays these seemed almost non-existent in 2010 compared to today. M.I.A has gained lots of support and praise in the music world and recently collaborated with Travis Scott for her first number 1 song “FRANCHISE”. Usually with artists that turn out to be problematic we would talk about separating the art from the artist but M.I.A’s music is based so much on her own personal experiences and she as a person keeps contributing to the conversation so much that it can be very difficult.
Words by Alex Herron.