Never one to shy from controversy, there was a time in the not-so-recent past when English-Sri Lankan firebrand Mathangi' Maya' Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A, may have released the final material of a two-decade career with 2016's AIM.
But with her most recent release, MATA, those rumors are definitively put to rest across another collection of 13 bite-size tracks released via Island Records. Representing a newfound calmness, MATA is still not without M.I.A.'s trademark angst, albeit presented through an overt sense of spiritual awakening. As M.I.A told Apple Music's Zane Lowe she has recently adopted Christian spirituality. MATA represents the clash between it, the boredom of pandemic times, and the ever-present struggle of celebrity ego. Always one to use her voice to draw attention to big and small worldwide issues - from the horror of Western Imperialism to refugee plight to fallout of her home country's civil war - M.I.A. has attracted as much controversy for her views as for her music with recent times seemingly brining more such chatter than usual. Typically, as is the case with the release of new material in the age of cancel culture, much of the talk surrounding MATA's release has revolved around its creator's Twitter activities leading up to its release. Specifically, her entirely within-her-right ability to question vaccine efficacy and highlight the synergies between the medical and celebrity industrial complexes pushing. But, regardless of controversy, MATA features M.I.A. at her most liberated, light, and optimistic, though not revolutionary.
Barely a track over three minutes, MATA presents its empowering narrative from the micro to the macro, philosophical to tangible. Opening with the two-part F.I.A.S.O.M. (Freedom is a State of Mind), and alluding to the recent controversies with "I tried to tell 'em somethin', this was not ready" in part 2. The sentiment is echoed on the album's third single and dancefloor-oriented Beep ("can't please everyone"). Beep, alongside album-closing hip-hop ballad Marigold, does harken back to the more politically charged work of 2005's Arular or 2007's Kala. They are tracks that remind us of a litany of social and political problems infecting the world, although done through the self-reflective realization that she's "not a politician and not UN." Further album singles include the Diplo co-produced reggaeton-inspirations of Popular and the lo-fi braggadocio of the album's most radio-friendly cut, The One. Perhaps the one place where M.I.A. opens new existentially-open avenues, and from one third -culture-kid to another, comes on the existentially confident Time Traveller ("Intercellular, they say "Are you Tamilar?" / I say "I'm a traveller pretending to be a regular").
With MATA, M.I.A harkens back to her pioneering music style, without which anyone from Nick Minaj to Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B to Doja Cat would not exist. It is a sonic barrage of South Asian rhythms, regional film scores, active electronics, and of course, the searing electroclash that put her on the map with Paper Planes in the first place. (Here, the most Paper Planes-esque track comes in the form of the acronym, yet distinctly less angst-ridden, KTP (Keep the Peace)). Overall, MATA does not add much to the resume of M.I.A grievance, which some fans may be looking for. But it's not meant to. Instead, it is the artist's most reflective work to date and no less prophetic toward the times we live in than anything she has released previously.