why we need m.i.a. more now than ever
The weekend release of her new track "Can See Can Do" was a reminder of how much we need Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam back in the pop cultural game.
This weekend, M.I.A. surprised us by sharing her first new track since 2013, a jagged slab of agit-rap called Can See Can Do. "Some people see planes, some people see drones," she sings on the second verse over buzzing synths and grinding beats. A naggingly catchy chorus follows, and it's also broadly political: "Wanna get past history, wanna make a future with you," goes the pay-off line. On SoundCloud, the track came accompanied by a quintessentially M.I.A. caption, one that's strident but a little bit defensive. "DEMOCRACY CONVERSATIONS ! TAMILS ARE STILL WAITING ! AND NO MY BEATS ARE NOT BETTER WITHOUT MY POLITICX." Then on Twitter, M.I.A. hinted that more new music is on its way, telling fans to "hang in there [because] summer is coming".
M.I.A.'s return can't come soon enough. Kanye West has been killing it lately with his candid Oxford University talk, a secret London gig organized just hours before he was due on stage and the promise of a Beyoncé-style surprise album release. And whatever you think of her new record, Madonna continues to push society's buttons by challenging traditional notions of how a 56-year-old woman should behave. But other than that, the music world feels a little bit safe, slightly stale and in desperate need of a shake-up.
It needs the sort of artist who'd, say, flip the bird in front of a global TV audience of 111m at the 2012 Super Bowl. Right from her arrival with 2005 debut album Arular, M.I.A. has been inherently provocative and thrillingly political. Her early single Sunshowers tackles gun culture and racial profiling while deftly name-checking the Palestine Liberation Organization with whom her father once trained. "Like PLO, I don't surrender," she brags. The blistering video for 2010's Born Free, inspired by the Sri Lankan army's allegedly unlawful killing of Tamil males, depicts a genocide against red-heads that's so shocking to watch, YouTube temporarily banned it.
Even her biggest hit to date, 2008's Paper Planes, contains a message - its title is a term M.I.A. coined to describe fake work visas used to enter the United States. The sound of gun shots ringing behind her, she sums up society's prejudice towards illegal immigrants in one snappy line: "All I want to do is take your money." Critics claim her political statements can be vague and half-baked, and sometimes that may well be true, but she's a recording artist, not a wannabe stateswoman. Her aim is to shine a spotlight on issues that feel significant to her and she mostly does it very well - who else could write a hit single about fake work visas? Who else would even try?
M.I.A. isn't just about socio-political messages though - she can be fun too. Her Danja-produced 2012 jam Bad Girls could even make Ann Widdecombe feel like a badass with its baller's refrain of "my chain hits my chest when I'm banging on the dashboard". Jimmy (2007) is a brilliantly ridiculous banger that takes an old Bollywood film song to the disco. More recently, Y.A.L.A. (2013) contains a pop culture reference that's both unexpected and a little bit spookily psychic: "Bankin' offshore, take a trip to Singapore / I need to earn like I'm Julianne Moore," MIA raps. Did she know the actress was about to sign up for The Hunger Games and win an Oscar?
Of course, an M.I.A. track generally doesn't live and die by its lyrics. Over the course of her four albums, she's displayed a peerless ability to pick up sounds from all over the globe and work them into her own, creating a unique, kaleidoscopic form of alternative pop music. M.I.A. tracks draw from hip hop and electronica, but she also borrows elements from lesser-known genres like Brazilian baile funk, Caribbean soca and the Gaana songs popular in Tamil culture. To say she's been ahead of the curve is an understatement: M.I.A. was working with Diplo over a decade ago.
M.I.A. isn't perfect and not all of her more recent tracks are keepers. The less said about 2010's silly "truffle fries" incident, the better. But over the last decade, she's been consistently interesting, innovative and unafraid to go out of a limb. Can See Can Do suggests she still has plenty to say, so let's hope she sticks to her word and the summer really does bring some new fierce, forward-thinking M.I.A. tunes.
Photography Shawn Mortensen