But then something strange happened. Thanks to a feature in promotions for Pineapple Express, "Paper Planes" became an huge Top 40 hit in the fall of 2008. The song became close to ubiquitous, and thrust M.I.A. into the pop culture spotlight (all this, it should be noted, over a year after Kala was released). It was then that she announced her intentions to retire, as she told the press that her music was not meant to be popular. And for a while she disappeared.
Of course, she didn't actually retire, and just released her third album, /\/\/\Y/\ (or Maya) on July 13. But this is not the M.I.A. we previously knew, at least not sonically. Lyrically, she's still the same politically-charged, grandstanding spitfire she's always been. But her sound has changed drastically: most of the songs are now leaden with various bleeps and bloops, with heavy synths and scuzzy guitars covering almost any semblance of continuous melody. The music seems to be informed by the same kind of industrial sound that Nine Inch Nails is known for, only M.I.A. wants you to dance to this, not headbang, per se.
But it's really hard to understand what exactly she wants us to do with this album. Her recent behavior has suggested that she's more rebellious than ever, a pop star who refuses to play by any rules except her own. Of course, in our Lady Gaga world, that doesn't seem too odd; but unlike Gaga, M.I.A. doesn't want to be a pop star. And /\/\/\Y/\ seems like a musical manifesto: don't categorize me and compare me to the likes of Britney Spears or Rihanna; I have no comparison. The shunning of both accessibility and popularity reminds me of another fame-phobic artist that released a similarly dense and inaccessible album earlier this year: MGMT (Congratulations).
So how is /\/\/\Y/\? Surprisingly good, if you approach it with an open mind. Despite how disastrous it sounds, the new sound works, and M.I.A.'s vocals fit right in. Songs like "Steppin Up" and standout "Teqkilla" are oddly danceable, while the album's only true radio-ready song, "XXXO," should be a club banger soon enough. "It Takes A Muscle" would make a great soundtrack for a Caribbean vacation circa 2050, and "Born Free" (infamous for its redhead-holocaust video) is a raging punk-tronic rail against the world. The only complaint that I have is her predilection to make claims about the government spying on us through Google; a little less conspiracy theory goes a long way. Apart from that, it's her most dense and challenging album yet, and those who accept will find it incredibly rewarding.