Joe Strummer would be proud. Maya Arulpragasam, the British-Sri Lankan hip-hop art-punk guerrilla, has his genius for stirring up trouble, his wide-eyed humor, his zest for turning fury into wonderfully fucked-up music. But not even Strummer could piss people off with what he had for lunch. Three years after sampling the Clash in her hit “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. is still outraged, proclaiming, “I didn’t choose a struggle but a struggle chose me/So I’m dancing on the rubble permanently.” And her third album is her most aggressive, confrontational and passionate yet.
These songs go heavy on electro-punk buzz, with help from producers like Rusko, Switch, Blaqstarr, Diplo and her brother Sugu. M.I.A. packs every track with left-field surprises: the ghostly Suicide organ on “Born Free,” the gospel chant of “Tell Me Why,” the Bowie-style robot sheen of “Space.” There’s also a strange cover of a 1982 Dutch synth-pop oddity, “It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love.” M.I.A. loves noise more than anybody since Public Enemy and N.W.A — she has a voracious ear for alarms, sirens, explosions, turning every jolt into a breakbeat.
Some people resent the way M.I.A. refuses to forget where she’s been, which means war zones, refugee camps and housing projects, but also art school and dance clubs. Yet that’s what makes the music so expansive as she rants about sex (“XXXO”), drugs (“Teqkilla”) and bombs (“Lovealot”) between goofy jokes (“I drink alcohol/Know the words to ‘Wonderwall’ ”). She covers so much ground because it’s all part of who she is. And from the sound of Maya, she’s capable of anything — except being dull.