Normally, when I review a pre-release leak, I try to make sure that I'm working with a reasonably high quality specimen. Typically, if I come across a leak in a bit rate lower than 160 kbps, I'll discard it immediately, and wait for something better. I try to avoid trans-codes, radio rips, web rips, anything that could get in the way of my listening to, understanding, and internalizing a particular album. Well, with M.I.A.'s latest, the annoying to type /|/|/|Y/|, I decided to break this rule. Why did I decide to change my philosophy now? Well, because I couldn't wait to hear /|/|/|Y/|, and so when I came across a shitty leaked version, I had to check it out. Of course, that still doesn't explain why I'd want to write a pre-release review of a shitty leak*. The truth of the matter is, the shitty leak is good enough that, while I'm sure the album proper, in all of its high fidelity glory, will sound infinitely better than the shitty leak, the shitty leak still sounds remarkably good. In a moment, we'll talk about that some more, but first, let's talk about where this leak came from.
It seems appropriate, since I'm reviewing an actual shitty leak, that I provide some detail on the leaked text itself. So, this leak resulted from, what appears to be, a retail website error. If my understanding is correct, a particular website that sells songs as Mp3's, posted samples to the songs from /|/|/|Y/|. Usually, in such a scenario, the web-retail site will provide thirty second clips of an album so that listeners can get a general sense of what a song or album sounds like. If you're unclear on this, check out iTunes or Amazon--they both do the "short clip" approach. However, either by design or accident, this particular website's sampling allowed users to listen to thirty second clips, but each time a user clicked play, they got the next thirty seconds of the song. Instead of hearing the same thirty seconds over and over again, users could effectively listen to an entire song in thirty second tidbits. As the internet is full of crafty individuals, someone managed to record the entire album in thirty second snippets, piece it together, and disseminate it through whatever and wherever. I came across the file at a message board I frequent, downloaded and, and have listened to it enough to realize that, shitty quality and all--in addition to the occasional splicing flub, the Mp3's sound slightly worse than something you may have recorded off of the radio in 1986-- /|/|/|Y/| is an exceptional album.
So what makes /|/|/|Y/| so good? In a word, it's the album's raw audacity. M.I.A. has always been a big, challenging personality. From our first introduction to her on the Piracy Funds Terrorism Mixtape, she has come to represent chaos in pop music--referencing the PLO in a pop song on her proper debut, dropping the oddly controversial gunshots into "Paper Planes," rocking the Grammy's as pregnant as possible, and more recently, stirring up some ruckus in the press. What this album represents, then, is the first time that M.I.A. has been able to harness her own anarchic energy and use it as the guiding principle of an album. Arular was an exciting, and daring record, yes. And Kala was even better, blurring numerous boundaries in pop music to become some sort of Homi K. Bhabha-esque pop dream. What /|/|/|Y/| does, consistently, that neither of its predecessors could sustain, is to render genre in pop music almost utterly irrelevant. If Kala found M.I.A. blurring pop, hip hop, indie rock, and any other number of influences into a delicious pop hybrid, /|/|/|Y/| finds her pulling punk and noise into the mix to make a raw, abrasive, confrontational album that manages to walk the delicate line between pop as sex and punk as fuck. In fact, I could see some pretty strong arguments coming about that /|/|/|Y/| is the punkest album to come around in years.
I should have known it was a good sign when Diplo tweeted, a couple of weeks back, something to the effect that most of the new M.I.A. album sounded like Skinny Puppy and freaked him out. While Skinny Puppy might not be the most obvious point of reference, the wall of tech-noise aesthetic running through most of the album's songs is stunning. "Teqkilla" builds on a messy groove complete with odd sampled vocal fragments and blasts of angry, displaced tones and warped keyboards. "Lovalot," on the other hand, is a bit more straight forward, it's production consisting of minimal percussion and bass. Unlike "Teqkilla" which finds its strength in noise, "Lovalot" relies on M.I.A.'s hot, simmering intensity as she delivers the line "I fight the ones that fight me," followed by more restrained bursts of sampled mischief. Elsewhere, M.I.A. bounces over a slick reggae groove on the hopeful "It Takes a Muscle," and I'm guessing if you're reading this, you've already familiarized yourself with the Suicide sampling burst of gut-punk that is "Born Free." In a way, the more extreme production choices on /|/|/|Y/| recall some of the bolder moments of Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. That's not to say that /|/|/|Y/|'s production actually sounds like the Bomb Squad, just that these songs sometimes work on a similar principle, but up the stakes to better fuck with our contemporary sensibilities.
The only song that doesn't quite work for me--yet--is "Tell Me Why," which is easily the most straight-forward, radio friendly song, here. The song's accessibility isn't, in and of itself, though, the reason for its failure. The problem is the sense that the song is trying too hard to be accessible, to be this album's "Paper Planes." Even with this misstep, though, the album comes to a close with the lovely and weird "Space," and we realize, as the album ends, that once again, M.I.A. has upped the ante, not just for herself, but for pop music as an art form. I know that's a pretty big claim to make based on a shitty leak, and maybe I'll change my mind in a month, but right now, with the shitty leak in my iTunes, I can't help but find /|/|/|y/| absolutely stunning.
M.I.A.'s /|/|/|Y/| is out on July 13, on Interscope records. You can preorder the album here.
*Yes, I do believe that "shitty leak" is the technical term for what I'm listening to, here.