Album of the week: M.I.A. finds her groove on Matangi

The provacative star's fourth album is her most assured yet—and the Pacific Rim of pop music.

M.I.A. settles into her groove on Matangi.

M.I.A. settles into her groove on Matangi.

Pacific Rim underlined an important message for Hollywood: The American market is an afterthought. The movie grossed $407 million worldwide, and only a quarter of that came from the United States. It's no great mystery why. It was the first big-budget spectacle to depict on film the battle between kaiju and mecha so common in Japanese manga and anime, and it was the vision of a Mexican director, with Black, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Australian, Spanish and American actors. You know, what people in the world actually look like. It might have been the first blockbuster blatantly titled after its target demographic.

M.I.A. is the closest thing the L.A. record industry has to Pacific Rim. Matangi, the provacative cult star's fourth and most assured album, blends hip-hop, reggae, bhangra, gaana, dubstep, sha'abi, Arab pop, R&B, moombahton, Goa trance, trap, zef and good old Yankee stripper fuel. You know, what music in the world actually sounds like. That's nothing entirely new for M.I.A. The big development here is how homogeneous it all sounds now. MAYA, the cluttered 2009 predecessor, jarred with its crude slice-and-dice and copy-and-paste. It sounded like an album made by drag and drop on a laptop, quite intentionally. MAYA was the sound of Mathangi Arulpragasam pulling in bits and bobs from the outside; Matangi is the expression of her inner headspace. The 38-year-old has never sounded so comfortable, as she rides the ever-shifting yet seamless grove.

Before reaching the surprisingly sweet and pretty closing duo, "Lights" and "Know It Ain't Right," the record sidewinds from the MPC-pounding "Warriors" and "Y.A.L.A." to the Miami Vice–ready neon melancholy of "Exodus" and the cyborg bedouin two-step of "aTENTion." The dancehall bounce of "Double Bubble Trouble" trumps the bro-baiting "Bubble Butt" of Diplo any day. Sure, a good bit of it is essentially Die Antwoord without the joke. And the Lara Croft references and lines like "more jiggy than Will" won't win her any lyrical awards (not even retroactively from 1999). However, she can deliver the chorus, "There's only one you, and I'ma drink to that," with more honest sentiment than any of her baby-you're-a-firework, #beautiful peers.

Labeling M.I.A. as a rapper feels wrong. However, she reminds me a lot of Eminem (who coincidentally releases The Marshall Mathers 2 LP today). Both slip in and out of different expressions of their personality. Eminem openly announces whether it is Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady or Eminem speaking to you. M.I.A. has been taking a similar tactic, albeit more subtly, from album to album. Arular was named for her father, Kala, her mother. MAYA is M.I.A.'s nickname, Matangi, obviously, her given name. As I searched for a explanation of why this immediately struck me as her best work, of why I keep compulsively spinning it, the simplest answer is that M.I.A.—even when boasting "You can't touch this / So click, click, click, please get off my dick" over bass bombs in "Bring the Noize"—sounds at ease, with nothing to prove—not to critics, not to Jay Z, not to Madonna, not to Jimmy Iovine, not to people looking for "Paper Planes II." Arulpragasam is on some Miles Davis level of fuck-you cool.

Take a look at Ke$ha. (Sorry. Just try.) With her whiskey breath, cut-off shorts, Valley Girl, glitter and lube, trailer park, high school house party image, she is the embodiment of American trash-pop culture. Accordingly, her latest album, Warrior, peaked at No. 6 in the States. But overseas? France, No. 156. The U.K., No. 60. Germany, No. 81. It doesn't help that she has our currency in her name. Also, her shit is just trite and mundane. There's an entire world out there. "Somalia, Bosnia, Cuba, Colombia, Equador, Mexico, Bhutan, Morocco, Botswana, Ghana, India, Serbia, Libya, Lebanon, Gambia, Namibia, Bali, Mali, Chile, Malawi, Bequia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Norway, China, Canada, U.S.A. and U.K., Nepal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Panama, Philippines, Nicaragua, Palestine and Greece, Peru and France," M.I.A. sings to open Matangi. "It's so simple, do the dance."

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)