Ranking M.I.A. albums

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.

3 thoughts on “Ranking M.I.A. albums

  1. “Sunshowers” is to me her quintessential dancehall/whatever Indian sub-genre-inspired muscic. “Paper Planes” her quintassential song, period. “Galang” I like, but toys perilously with novelty (anyway, Missy Elliot had already one bangra-inspired banger “Get Yar Freak On” so it wasn’t SUCH a sounding surprise; if anything, it felt it came already late! Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin” started these eastern-flavored hits already at the beginning of the century)
    I prefer “XXO” to “Bad Girl”. I think XXO it’s her best soca number (I like there are both disco and synth-pop overtones in it) her effectifveness to me lies in whether she can tame her beats into something coherent a whole album. I like Arular better than Kala, but I can’t really see how she coheres into a whole album. Having listen those two back to back, I rememember not knowing which song was on one or the other. So it’s really a tie, I think? I don’t know. I remember more her singles and some particular cuts. Isn’t any filler in her albums? Sometimes, I think she’s all over the place, like trying to mix Eastern Culture with Werstern, especially hip-hop beats and I wish she was little more like Cornershop-funky but then I am accused of “being a softie”.
    She’s a trailblazer, that’s for sure.
    Good list. “Maya” it’s clear third for me, too. But I’m not sure with her. I need to listen again.

    PS: “Bucky Done Gun” it’s her nod to mangue-beat, a brazilian funk-inspired genre I find too aggressive to my ears.

      • I believe you! I missed her here in Buenos Aires, but just seeing her show recorded was like whoa! Isn’t she better live? I mean… my friends told me so!
        I don’t have a friggin clue how does she does it live. It’s the “Beck Question Mark”: How does she translate that hodgepodge live? The percussionists have a lot of work.

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