M.I.A. could have taken the easy way out. After the international smash "Paper Planes," an artistic and commercial success, all she had to do for her new album was craft "Paper Planes II" - a similar combo of catchy melodies and cleverly disguised political rhetoric - to build on her momentum.
That's not what she did, of course. No LeBronning for her. Instead, M.I.A. made things more challenging. Her new album "/\/\/\Y/\" (N.E.E.T./XL), which is unpronounceable but stands for her first name "Maya," tries to bridge the gap between her stunning, innovative debut "Arular" and a mainstream clamoring for a fresh take - musically, lyrically and ideologically - on hip-hop.
Truth be told, she falls a little short most of the time. But the effort still makes for rewarding listening. After all, for M.I.A. the music is often just the jumping-off point. The raucous, abrasive, suicide-sampling adrenaline ride "Born Free" becomes exponentially undeniable when teamed with its controversial video that violently shows what ethnic cleansing looks like by rounding up and murdering red-haired boys. In the stomping, guitar-fueled "Meds and Feds," she renovates the techno sound of the '90s.
But it's her pop-leaning songs that stand to gain the most attention. With its Euro-electro-pop feel, "XXXO" could be a Lady Gaga hit, while the lilting, dub-tinged "It Takes a Muscle" sounds like it's one radio-friendly remix away from being a summertime hit. However, it's the sweet "Space" that comes closest to capsulizing what M.I.A. wants "/\/\/\Y/\" to achieve - catchy music that's still thought-provoking. Hopefully that's enough to inspire her to keep trying.
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BOTTOM LINE Spawning controversy by more conventional means