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M.I.A.:The Billboard Cover Story

The Billboard Cover Story: M.I.A.

Mikael Wood

During "Space," the dreamy future-shock ballad that closes her upcoming third album, M.I.A. repeatedly coos, "My lines are down/You can\'t call me," over a gently percolating beat that sounds like a Sega Genesis practicing its pillow talk. It\'s just one of the many observations on our data-drenched Infotainment Age that crop up throughout "/\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\," a stunning, more-or-less self-titled effort from the 34-year-old Sri Lankan native born Maya Arulpragasam. Yet in a telephone interview with Billboard last week, the lyric is taking on another, more literal meaning, as M.I.A. travels on a Eurostar train from Brussels to London during a hectic round of European promotion. Namely, her cell phone keeps dropping our call whenever her train enters a tunnel.

When the line goes dead for the fourth time-hey, it\'s Europe; there are lots of tunnels-it\'s tempting to wonder if M.I.A. has perhaps hung up on purpose. After all, she\'d just been asked about the massive attention paid to journalist Lynn Hirschberg\'s less-than-fawning cover profile of her in the New York Times Magazine last month, and M.I.A.\'s subsequent responses. Maybe she\'s tired of discussing the story\'s focus on her supposed radical chic: a comfortable, even posh personal life allegedly at odds with her firebrand art and politics. Maybe she\'s fed up with talking about why she tweeted Hirschberg\'s cell phone number, or later posted a covert recording of one of her and Hirschberg\'s conversations. Maybe she\'s sick of the term "Trufflegate" (so coined after Hirschberg made hay out of M.I.A. ordering truffle-oil-flavored French fries) and figures that simply avoiding the topic might help it die a speedy death.

Fact is, M.I.A. is forthright in addressing last week\'s media cause célèbre. Does she regret doing the Times story?

"Not really," she replies. "I kind of knew what it was going to be.

"I said, \'Fuck the New York Times,\' " she continues, referring to a series of tweets earlier this year in which she objected to the newspaper\'s coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka between Sinhalese and Tamil factions. (Although M.I.A.\'s mother moved herself and her children to London when M.I.A. was young, the artist\'s father remained in war-torn Sri Lanka, taking part in various Tamil opposition efforts.) "Of course they weren\'t going to be like, \'Hi! How you doing? We love you!\' "

Whatever else it demonstrated, the Truffle Kerfuffle made it clear that at some point between the 2007 release of her second album, "Kala," and approximately two weeks ago, M.I.A. underwent an unlikely transformation from underground phenom to Very Big Deal.

"She\'s trying to do politics and she\'s trying to do art," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers says. "And she doesn\'t want to compromise or keep silent. That worked for the Clash, but that was a certain time and a certain place. And it partly worked for them because they were a band, and we\'re used to seeing guys be confrontational. If it works for her, I think she\'s even more important than we thought."

"I always forget that she has this sort of celebrity side to her," says Rusko, one of M.I.A.\'s principal collaborators on her new album. "On a Tuesday night me and [longtime M.I.A. producer] Switch can go down and lurk around at [Los Angeles nightspot] Cinespace, and it\'s pretty chill. Maya can\'t do that-she\'s in that next realm now."

The shift is one she\'s still coming to grips with. "It\'s weird that I can make a joke and it becomes so controversial and people want to write about it," she says over the muffled squawk of a Eurostar conductor\'s announcement. "Some thing I say really flippantly gets this full-on rampage of stuff happening. It\'s amazing to me that people will do that."

 M.I.A. has always had a high press profile, but in the past most of the attention was focused on her music, which between "Kala" and her 2005 debut, "Arular," has notched combined sales of more than 719,000 albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan; "Paper Planes," her breakthrough single off "Kala," reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, earned a 2009 Grammy Award nomination for record of the year and has sold 3 million copies. "In one way it\'s not their fault that they don\'t have music to write about," she says of the countless pop-culture pundits who\'ve weighed in on Trufflegate, "because I haven\'t put a record out."

Until now, that is: Due July 13 in the United States on the singer\'s own N.E.E.T. Recordings imprint through Interscope, "/\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\" is sure to steer at least part of the conversation regarding M.I.A. back to her music. It\'s at once her most accessible and most experimental album, as defined by the sweet synth-pop melodies of "XXXO" as by the juddering electro-punk beats of "Born Free." In "Tell Me Why," over a sample of a recording by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, M.I.A. flexes a disarmingly plaintive singing voice, while "Steppin Up" finds her warning all comers, "I run this fucking club."

"I was happy being the retarded cousin of rap," she says. "Now I\'m the retarded cousin of singing."

"If you\'re an M.I.A. fan and you buy a new M.I.A. record," Rusko says, "you want to hear something you\'ve never heard before. This record gives you that."

Work on the 12-track set took place mostly in Los Angeles, where M.I.A. settled in early 2009 with her fiancé, Ben Bronfman (son of Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.) and their young child Ikhyd. Her collaborators included many of the musicians M.I.A. has been partnering with for years, such as Diplo, Switch and Blaqstarr; Rusko, the latest addition to the crew, is signed to Diplo\'s label Mad Decent.

"We really don\'t have any kind of formula," Switch says. "All the records come around by watching something on YouTube and an idea comes, or by going out to the clubs or something. We basically just mess around till something makes us excited enough for her to jump on the mic. We\'ll have her run on the track for 10 or 15 minutes, then I\'ll come and edit the bits and bobs she likes together. Then we\'ll flip it, reverse it, turn it backward and build a song from there."

"Maya is very careful about who she works with," says Mark Williams, who signed M.I.A. to Interscope and worked in an A&R capacity on both "Kala" and "/\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\." (Williams is no longer with the label, but Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine asked him to assist M.I.A. on the new album.) "There\'s a comfort zone and a familiarity in the creative experience that she gets from working with Diplo and Switch. Even though there have been documented tensions at times"-Diplo, a former boyfriend, made several seemingly critical remarks about M.I.A. in the New York Times Magazine piece-"all sides agree that it\'s productive. They know where she\'s at, but at the same time they push each other."

"Kala" contained one track produced by Timbaland, and given her cool-kid cachet and the mainstream exposure she earned performing alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. at the 2009 Grammy Awards, it seems reasonable to assume that M.I.A. could\'ve landed collaborations with any number of high-profile beatmakers for "/\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\." The very prospect elicits a sigh audible from Europe.

"I didn\'t want my work to be like a bar graph of, \'How many new producers can she afford?\' " M.I.A. says. "That\'s not how I measured it." Retaining a connection to her first two albums was more important. "If you have all three, then it makes sense that they came from the same person. And I didn\'t want it to be like, \'Then she met blah-blah!\' "

In any event, she adds, "the song that everybody liked off \'Kala\' ["Paper Planes"] wasn\'t made by one of those producers. So I don\'t know why we\'re constantly second-guessing that, because it\'s unpredictable-especially with me. You have to be honest with your art and then hope for the best. I can have any producer on my album that\'s from that world, but it doesn\'t really mean anything. You\'re just going to get a diluted version of me."

"/\\/\\ /\\ Y /\\" certainly doesn\'t deliver a diluted version of M.I.A.; if anything, it emphasizes the contradictions at the heart of who she is, with lush love songs jostling against scrappy political rants. M.I.A. says she\'s not sure it\'s her responsibility as an artist to resolve those paradoxes. "That\'s what I was trying to work out: whether the future is something you level out or if you describe the extremes more."