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The Major Lift

by John Brodeur on August 4, 2010

In the waning days (or we should hope) of a seemingly ceaseless heatwave, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking summer has all but reached its end—though we’re only about halfway there. On the bright side, this is prime time for the majors to roll out some of their most anticipated 2010 releases. And surely none of this year’s crop come more anticipated, using a high-expectations-vs.-length-of-wait-time scale, than Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, the proper solo debut from Antwan Patton, aka Big Boi. That’s “proper” because, as fans already know, his actual solo debut was Speakerboxx, half of the 2003 Outkast set with Andre “3000” Benjamin’s The Love Below. And despite Benjamin’s seeming dominance at the time due to the odd, inescapable “Hey Ya!” Big Boi’s set was the sturdier of the two overall, producing it’s own chart-topper (“The Way You Move”) in the process. So when it came time for a “proper” Big Boi release, you’d think the label would have been psyched for what would surely be a massive hit. Right? Well . . .

In 2004, Arista, the distributor for Outkast’s longtime label LaFace, went through some “restructuring” and ended up under the Jive imprint. You can already kind of see where this is going. When the duo announced their intentions to produce solo work following 2006’s underrated Idlewild soundtrack, Jive balked, pressuring the duo to deliver another Outkast record. When Patton delivered a version of the album to the label in 2008, the tracks were dismissed as too artistic. This being the 21st century, however, some tracks leaked—and there was no indication that this album would be anything but a banger. Heck, one of those tracks (“Royal Flush,” featuring Andre 3000 and Raekwon) even landed a Grammy nomination that year.

The fact that Jive argued over the record’s marketability, when Patton (via Outkast) has been responsible for so many millions in album sales, is just a symptom of the deeper sickness in the industry. There’s no reason this shouldn’t have been the biggest rap record of 2008—it’s everything you could ask for in a Big Boi record. But such as things are in the modern music industry Patton was more or less forced to bounce. And despite pressure from Jive to block its release, Sir Lucious has made it out alive, intact save for the tracks that featured his once-and-future partner.

And just as everyone suspected, “art” isn’t even part of the conversation. This is a collection of singles: the producers are swapped out from track to track, the beats drawn from all over the South. “With success comes a great responsibility,” Patton raps in his formidable style on “Shine Blockas,” and it’s a responsibility he recognizes fully with this album of rhymes about the club, for the club. It’s delivered with Patton’s steady and professional hand, and backed up by enough guests to fill a box set. Almost every song features a guest or three, and they’re mostly great: Alabama rapper Yelawolf’s verses on the Andre- produced “You Ain’t No DJ” bristle with the snarky hunger of early Eminem, while T.I.’s turn on the decadent “Tangerine” (“my reality is your fantasy”) sounds like the polar opposite of hunger. “For Your Sorrows” breaks the guest bank with contributions from both George Clinton and Too $hort.

A lesser artist would disappear in the sea of personalities but there is little doubt who’s the star here. Even when his own verse feels like the featured spot (as on “Be Still,” essentially a showcase for Janelle Monae’s appealingly smooth croon for three of its four minutes) Patton steps up and resets the game with his sharply enunciated, unpretentious, often double-time raps—rhymes are tucked inside other rhymes, rhythms borrowed from jazz and funk. And it’s done with a radiant sense of fun. (For extra fun, listen for the nasty between-track banter.)

Almost as anticipated, but for slightly different reasons, is the latest album from British-Sri Lankan performer M.I.A. ///Y/, as it’s been stylized, could be the most annoying album title from an editorial standpoint since Prince changed his name to that weird symbol in the early 1990s. (We’ll call the album by its proper name, Maya, here.) What it lacks in Google-ability it equals in quirk: All the expectations pinned on the artist following the unexpected commercial success of “Paper Planes” seems to have put her on the defensive. And recent Twitter flame-wars between M.I.A. and various music journalists suggest that she’s just following the age-old tradition of complaining about success only after shamelessly courting it for years. (If you saw her on the Grammys a few years ago with Kanye and Weezy, you know.)

In any case: After connecting Google to the government at the start of the album, she brings us the first single, “XXXO.” As close to “conventional” as any song she’s recorded, it’s kind of a great postmodern pop song—her poppiest hook paired with a disconnected vocal about, well, disconnection. If it’s her kiss-off to bandwagon-jumpers, it’s effective on a few levels. For one, it’s got more than a modicum of crossover potential; moreover, it works as both sendup and statement, and it’s sonically in line with the album’s part-minimal, part-maelstrom ethic. (Steeped in ’80s industrial and electronic sounds, Maya has accidentally brought the name Skinny Puppy back into the lexicon.)

Maya is all over the map, per usual: “Teqkilla” bleats on like an open modem connection for more than six minutes; “Meds and Feds” samples Sleigh Bells, a client of M.I.A.’s label, which I think means she’s somehow biting herself; the propulsive, punky “Born Free” samples electro-punk duo Suicide (if no other good comes from Maya, at least it got Martin Rev on the Letterman show). She really shows her hand on “Tell Me Why,” one of two Diplo productions. A sample of the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers is tacked to a stuttering snare beat, the lead vocal pitch-corrected and anthemic. Yes, anthemic—more than any other song here, “Tell Me Why” has the potential to help the singer put “Paper Planes” behind her.

Despite all that, it sounds more like a record than previous M.I.A. efforts (though the credits name more producers than ever). What’s fascinating is the way Maya manages to stretch some pretty thin sentiments (“you want me to be somebody who I’m really not”; “all I ever wanted was my story to be told”) into an album that’s meant to function as a comment on Internet culture. The meta-ness of all that cannot have escaped the artist; few performers are more ensconced in Internet culture than M.I.A. But that’s what makes it personal, I guess—after all, this is the album she named after herself. Or perhaps she’s just trying to say to critics what she best sums up in the title “It Iz What It Iz.”