Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Arular [XL, 2005] A
  • Kala [Interscope, 2007] A+
  • Maya (Deluxe Edition) [Interscope, 2010] A
  • Vicki Leekx Mixtape [ download, 2010] B+
  • Matangi [Interscope, 2013]  
  • AIM [Interscope, 2016] A
  • Mata [Island, 2022] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Arular [XL, 2005]
The deepest cut on Arular is "Amazon," where M.I.A. the favela funk thief depicts herself as a cultivated Brit kidnapped by Brazilian criminals. She's missing from Acton, her London 'hood, but after she fell for that palm tree smell, "bodies started merging." The vertiginous excitement of pan-ethnic identity, so unlike the purity the Tamil Tigers kill for, imbues every pieced-together track, but only on "Hombre," a pidgin-Spanish proposition with a sitar intro, does it get quite so explicit. Violence is everywhere, dropped casually like a funk grenade or flaunted instructively as in the oft quoted "It's a bomb yo/So run yo/Put away your stupid gun yo." But not for a moment does the violence seem vindictive, sadistic, or pleasurable. It's a fact of life to be triumphed over, with beats and tunelets stolen or remembered or willed into existence. This is the territory I've always wished Missy Elliott would risk, and let's not be coy about how M.I.A. got there. "Banana Skit" starts the album with her only message: "Get yourself an education." A

Kala [Interscope, 2007]
Less catchy and novel than 2005's Arular, this just gets stronger and more intelligent over time--compared to Arular, and also to Arcade Fire's Neon Bible or Radiohead's In Rainbows or, I don't know, Jay-Z's American Gangster. Where so many bands who consider tunes beneath them compensate with piddling portions of texture or structure, this record is full of things to listen to: zooms and scrapes and grunts and whistles and kiddie voices and animal cries, weird Asian drums and horns, down-home melodica and didgeridoo. Also, of course, bass bass bass--guitar, drum, whatever. The songs imagine and recreate an unbowed international underclass that proves how smart it is just by stating its business, which includes taking your money. The lyrics far cannier politically than those on Arular. But their proof is in the music. A+

Maya (Deluxe Edition) [Interscope, 2010]
Since self-made celebrities with pretensions always stumble eventually, I figure it's my place in the food chain not to act like a hyena when they do. So I kept listening, and concluded that while this is no Kala, what is? Arular is the analogy, only there she strove to ingratiate and here she elects not to--with immensely more success than MGMT on Congratulations and rather more success than Kanye West on 808s and Heartbreak. The stark beats take some getting used to, and there are lyrical miscues that still make me wince when they catch my ear--only it's been a while, because I'm too busy loving those beats and the spunky, shape-shifting, stubbornly political, nouveau riche bundle of nerves who holds them together. I admit that I'm now less inclined to hear "Teqkilla" as a lust song for her just plain rich honey and more as a red flag about her alcohol consumption. But if you've ever been a fan, this isn't where to stop. Just play it a few more times than the fools who clocked dollars for the job and you'll get your money's worth. And I do mean on all 16 new songs--three of the four bonus tracks are upper 50th percentile for sure. A

Vicki Leekx Mixtape [ download, 2010]
The fact that this was overrated as part of the same extra-musical chain reaction that caused Maya to be underrated doesn't mean it was merely well-timed and, as they say, well-played. It takes a while to congeal, but for fans there's spice aplenty in the skinny beats-for-their-own-sake that dominate a first half whose most memorable line is "try to outschool us so we jump on our scooters" (on "WWW/Meds/Feds" seven minutes in, and FWIW the Wikipedia times are 40 seconds off on my version). But after "Vicki Intermission" come three consecutive songs that'll make you madder than you were already that the artiste thought it provocative, as they say, to leave the album untracked: the well-hooked "Gen -N-E-Y" followed by "Bad Girls" and "Marsha/Britney." Theme statement: "You can have my money but you can't have me." Whether she's singing it for her penniless sisters or her affluent self is impossible to tell. That's why they call her provocative. Also, um, controversial. B+

Matangi [Interscope, 2013]
[2013 Dean's List: 33]  

AIM [Interscope, 2016]
Nothing has made me happier in this horrendous moment than Maya Arulpragasam's loopy, simplistic fifth album. Fuck you if you think it's "lightweight" or "confusing" or "aimless" or "ho-hum"--it's the hard-earned proof of the happiness she's achieved after years of fretting about the asinine shaming of 2010's excellent Maya for the crime of following Kala, which was only the greatest album of the century. As no one notices, her sonorities, scales, and tune banks have never been more Asian--mostly East Asian, especially up top, although I'm partial to the uncredited oud-I-think on "Ali r u ok." That's one more signal of the self-acceptance enjoyed by this refugee on an album she says is about refugees, as is her damn right as someone who migrated/fled from London to Sri Lanka to India back to Sri Lanka back to London to--after absurd bureaucratic hoohah--the USA. Never a convincing intellectual, she makes a point of keeping these lyrics beyond basic--declaring "we" a trope, jumping on the byword "jump," riffing on every stupid bird rhyme she can think of. The recommended non-"deluxe" 12-track version ends with one called "Survivor," which like it or not she is. "Men are good, men are bad/And the war is never over," she notes. "Survivor, survivor/Who said it was easy?/Survivor, survivor/They can never stop we." Takeaway: bad shit being her heritage, she intends to enjoy herself however bad the shit gets, and so should we. A

Mata [Island, 2022]
Always longer on political instinct than political acuity, Maya Arulpragasam tossed off a whopper of a tweet to draw attention to her first album in six years: "If Alex Jones pays for lying shouldn't every celebrity pushing vaccines pay too?" Although anti-vax disinformation is somewhat more forgivable in parents whose kids seem to slot vaccine-sensitive, a malady she reports befell her daughter, the illogic here is total--even assuming that Jones has a right to his evil opinions, the money he's been ordered to cough up is money he lied egregiously to obtain, where celebrities delivering public service announcements generally do so gratis. Yet even so her first album since 2016 establishes not just that her hip-hop groove and rap dialect remain her own but that after six years she's ready with fresh proof. For all her "multiple relationships, drop them like a hair flip," at 48 she's set on launching brags beyond the reach of any rival, and not just because she sometimes raps in Tamil: "Art in the Tate," say, or "See me in the rubble of a Hubbell telescope." Keeping peace in the streets one minute, she's all "put your pickets down come on and riot" the next. And please note: "The slave trade was real and so was the Holocaust. It wasn't that long ago--you can ask someone's grandma about it." A-

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