M.I.A.'s "Odyssey": Dirty, Cheap, Transcendent

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There's no way around the truth: when Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam's hip-hop/baile funk/favela fury is generated on the cheap, she's unfuckwithable. You can't touch her. The urgent, up-in-your-grill, force-of-personality driven agit-pop she brings to bear is inimitable.

(Sorry, Santigold; you're a poor substitute.)

That's a large part of why Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol I and Arular hold up so well several years later, while I'm in no big rush to hear most of Kala again anytime soon. Arular's slightness seemed like an Achilles' heel during early listen, but revealed itself as an asset over time; those songs boasted a skeletal immediacy that branded them into memory. Kala, meanwhile, was maybe too fulsomely tuneful for its own good.

During her long respite from recording -- she "retired" from music, got married, wound up a willing participant in Slumdog Millionaire mania, had a kid, collaborated with Rye Rye and N.A.S.A., started a fashion line full of loud neon clothing -- M.I.A. must have arrived at a similar conclusion, because "Space Odyssey," her first new solo joint in a minute, sounds like complete and utter shit.

Super-8 shit. Lo-fi, stupid 8-bit.

And it is wonderful. Wonderfully awkward, wonderfully alien, wonderfully whorled and whirling.

And M.I.A. sings, not raps, ascending-scale verses melting into echoed curlicues of her own syllables, everything grainy and rough and unpolished. The crab nebula drift of the production suits the decentered feel of the lyrics and how the song gradually descends into a battle royale of abrupt bloops and bleeps, which creates the impression that M.I.A. was keeping some conflict at bay for as long as possible through sheer force of will, until she just couldn't anymore.

Despite its apparent political/media context, "Space Odyssey" registers as one of M.I.A.'s least confrontational songs; it's like a sigh that segues into a hiss, content to make a minor mark without burning down the capitol. But its messiness is delightful, and portends a forthcoming M.I.A. disc that's likely to spend a lot of time in my car's CD player.

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