Her October 2007 show in Miami remains one of the bangers of a lifetime, unexpected in ferocity and stage smarts. She has another good album in her that’s not AIM.
1. Kala (2007)
The beat get deeper as she casts her net wider. Many artists have sought to emulate the range and pitch of birdcalls; M.I.A. is the first to sound like a goddamn aviary (“Bird Flu”). With help from producer Stitch, she re-imagines a Bollywood mirrorball number, “Blue Monday” (“The Turn”), and soca (“Boyz”), committed to flow without ebb, party without end. When Pineapple Express turned “Paper Planes” into a goddamn American top five smash, her reach looked limitless: if she could seduce frumpy male white stoners…
2. Arular (2005)
Hard to hear what turned this debut into a cause célèbre in early 2005 except its aural novelty, which is considerable. With one foot in booty music and electroclash and the other in soca and a sensibility soaked in Tamil politics, M.I.A. made LCD Soundsystem sound like grad students drunk at their first party. The Dr. Buzzard sample on “Sunshowers” re-purposes a disco-era smoocher into a blasted look at what a kid who used Colgate and wore Reebok had to die for to get what was his. Yet listeners needn’t have paid attention to her lyrics to get off on Arular‘s fleetness of foot. The thinness was the charm.
3. ΛΛ Λ Y Λ (2010)
The beats get deepest, suitable for blasting through the woofers installed in an ’86 Celebrity roaring down Collins Avenue. Freestyle is the genre with which M.I.A. had the most obvious affinities: she loves the cars that go boom. Although ΛΛ Λ Y Λ was a shade less fabulous than its predecessors, the artist got embroiled in a classic 2010s pseudo-debate about privilege and truffle fries. “Born Free” might’ve come off as sloganeering to her critics, but who were they to make the judgment, and where were their bass lines? “Lovalot” to “Born Free” forms her most charming sequence. Her “It Takes a Muscle” cover is a subtle revolutionary gesture, almost queer in its subversion: by accepting the secondhand cliches of the systems of language she had once criticized, she shows these systems potential for elasticity. She don’t wanna talk about hoochies cuz she been it.
4. Matangi (2013)
Like the Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, Matangi, I wrote at the time, understands the semiotics of disco, the politics of noise, with beats too hot to be cool. Beneath the barrage are melodic undercurrents that project a general unease. She may claim in “Exodus” that “My blood type is no negative/But I’m positive the dark ain’t deep” but that’s not what her voice, scraping its highest register, says.