M.I.A.'s Matangi is 2013's most misunderstood album

People still don't know what to do with M.I.A. As was the case last time around, the criticism of Maya Arulpragasam's fourth LP, Matangi, is predictably unforgiving. The reviews say it's a typically frustrating piece, the work of an artist with a persecution complex who can't control herself on Twitter and seems hellbent on confounding her fans. For some, its supposed datedness, the absence of another "Paper Planes," and even a lack of spirituality have irreparably tainted this album.

Matangi is by no means perfect, but all of the "negatives" listed above can be spun to become quite attractive. This is yet another forward-thinking work by a musician who has never stood still. That it should be conflated so conveniently with Arulpragasam herself is unfair to both, if not even troubling. It suggests that we just aren't willing to let M.I.A. be right.

Recently, M.I.A. made a point of suggesting that Matangi was a "spiritual" album. She'd acquainted herself, she told FADER, with a "hood-dwelling" Hindu goddess from whom the record got its name, and was inspired to explore the topic more thoroughly. "I became interested in all the multi-faceted ways a woman can exist, what the options for being a woman are," Arulpragasam explained.

Her sense of "spirituality" was used loosely, but a listen to Matangi shows what she was getting at. Sure, some lyrics seem lazy, and there aren't many explicit religious references beyond a clumsy recitation of Hindu tropes. But as the album progresses, M.I.A. explores some of her most personal themes to date -- what it means to find companionship, to let yourself be vulnerable, to appreciate the smaller things in life, and to live on your own terms.

Had she not inserted spirituality into the conversation, it's likely no one would be using it against her now. Alexis Petridis, in a mostly positive review in the Guardian, remarks, "There isn't much sign of her much-vaunted new-found spirituality, beyond the appalling title 'Karmageddon' and the odd sample of someone chanting 'om' amid the album's broiling stew of noises."

Compared to the bruising noise of 2010's Maya, though, she has a far more diverse agenda, sonically and topically, on this new album. For instance, on her collaboration with the Weeknd, "Exodus," she argues for her own optimism, and eventually wonders why ambition should get in the way of our own happiness: "Baby, you can have it all/Tell me, what for?" Supposedly, it was just such "positivity" that prompted Interscope to delay the record's release. Whether that's true or not, what matters is that Matangi -- however imperfect the overall product may be --manages to re-contextualize the very social and political themes that have always shaped M.I.A.'s music.

What remarks like Petridis' seem to suggest, however, is something more insidious -- not only that Arulpragasam wasn't taken particularly seriously in her own comments, but also that her "spirituality" isn't, let's say, exotic enough. Her politics, of course, by dint of their radicalism, often get denigrated as theater and mere half-cooked posturing. But her ethnicity, too, has long been drawn into question -- her "authenticity" as a voice for South Asian people. She was born in London, after all, and even if she spent parts of her childhood in war-torn areas of Sri Lanka and India, she was mostly educated in England. Surely, her identity, too, must be a prop.

Needless to say, there are troubling racial overtones embedded in such logic. If she dresses in traditional garb, it must be an act. If she borrows from traditional music or uses native musicians, it's appropriation. If a self-proclaimed "spiritual" album fails to delve into Hinduism, or some other caricature of "Indian" beliefs, it's further grounds for denigration.

In an excellent defense of the rapper's ethnic identity, Vice's Ayesha A. Siddiqi argues, "M.I.A.'s choice to borrow imagery from disparate groups and turn it into iconography isn't appropriative; it's the natural instinct of a diasporic identity... [We] keep getting beat up for looking like Arabs slash Muslims slash terrorists. Called all three, M.I.A subverts the conflation to her advantage."

Fellow trendsetting "problem child" pop star Kanye West gets a lot of this treatment too. Both are unafraid to bridge sensitive social issues, particularly as they relate to race and poverty. Which is okay -- so long as those critiques don't hit too close to home for white audiences. In West's case, his early, clownish demeanor made his observations palatable; but when he unleashed a withering take-down like Yeezus earlier this year, he was accused of bullshitting, megalomania, and even reverse racism.

The irony of the songs, as had long been the case with M.I.A's., was taken literally, and then used against him. Of course it looks bad if you take West at his word for a line like, "I'll fuck your Hampton spouse/Come on her Hampton blouse/And in her Hampton mouth" -- but doing so ignores the entire conceptual framework of the album, which centers, coincidentally, around hypocrisy.

And yet, once again, it's the credibility of the likes of West and Arulpragasam that gets undercut -- how can either speak for the poor or the oppressed when they themselves are wealthy celebrities? -- and when their frustrations boil over publicly, they're treated as immature or capricious. In some cases, they're treated like children.

Which is why the reactions to Matangi, if far less vehement than Yeezus, feel all the sadder for the fact that they are also a repeat of recent history. That M.I.A. continues to be so divisive suggests that she's tapped into a part of our collective consciousness that we're not fully prepared to deal with. That we continue to fight against it suggests that we haven't made as much progress as we'd like to think.