Boundary-pushing artist rides out battles with the NFL, her child's father -- and herself -- with fourth studio effort.
By 2010, M.I.A. had a top 10 single, a gold-selling album, an Academy Award nod and a Grammy performance under her belt. What she didn't have, however, was motivation for recording new music.
"I was confused by who to make music for, what to make music for," says M.I.A. (real name Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) of the time period between her third album, 2010's "/\/\ /\ Y /\," and the long-delayed "Matangi," due Nov. 5.
Before this low point, the button-pushing English-Sri Lankan artist, who first piqued the interest of the blogosphere with her 2004 single "Galang," had watched her unclassifiable mix of hip-hop, techno, bhangra and everything in between reach more and more ears, culminating with the single "Paper Planes," from 2007's "Kala," which climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold 4 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Soon after, she was an Oscar nominee for her work on the "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack, and performed alongside Jay Z, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and T.I. at the Grammys while nine months pregnant.
However, those expecting a victory lap with her follow-up to "Kala" were rudely mistaken: Like its title's inscrutable lettering, the abrasive "/\/\ /\ Y /\" was challenging, selling just 99,000 copies, compared with "Kala's" 560,000. Today, even M.I.A. recognizes that she needed to change her creative process before recording again. "It was becoming really saturated and predictable," she says glumly. "I wanted to break out of it."
The lightning-bulb moment came when she learned that her birth name is derived from "Matangi," a Hindu goddess who represents the expression of inner knowledge, including art and music.
"Suddenly it was like, 'OK, I'm going to make this album for Matangi,'" she says. "I found a whole new way of looking at [music] -- somebody saying it's so important they made a goddess for it who protected the meaning of music, the frequencies, the sonics. To learn about that and take it out of the context I'm in, it was pretty dope. It's making music without treating it as a business or as a game or as a competition."
Largely produced by longtime collaborator Switch, "Matangi" contains its share of wobbly dance songs, but compared with the bleary-eyed rave sound of "/\/\ /\ Y /\," it's downright serene. "Sexodus" is a swirling R&B track that samples the Weeknd's "Lonely Star," while sing-songy single "Come Walk With Me" was given an animated music video starring various Hindu deities.
The road to the album's release on Interscope has been riddled with delays, and M.I.A. notes that a handful of the songs were recorded "a long time ago," months before she threatened to leak the album herself in August. "In order to lose and find yourself as an artist, you have to abandon your team," she says of her mind-set at the time. "I went off to do my thing."
In fact, she says, "Matangi" likely would have been a darker album if not for the pushbacks -- M.I.A. is currently facing a lawsuit from the NFL after she flashed her middle finger while performing with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, and she's locked in a custody war with the father of her child, Benjamin Bronfman, son of former Warner Music Group chairman/CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.
"I'm happy that I made it before the shit storm with court dates and stuff like that," M.I.A. says. "It helps me cope. I was playing it going, 'Thank God I didn't write it right now, because I would have gone into the studio and said a bunch of crazy shit.' It was nice to have something very calm and relaxing."
While M.I.A. deals with her courtroom battles, "Matangi" will receive an extensive promotional push, complete with radio looks for singles "Come Walk With Me" and "Bring the Noize"; appearances on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," "The Colbert Report" and "Conan"; and a performance at the inaugural YouTube Music Awards on Nov. 3. M.I.A. is also touting a new fashion collaboration with Versace's Versus line, which launched in October, and has long been prepping a documentary directed by Steve Loveridge.
"In the next six months, we'll roll out some incredible visuals for key tracks, launch festival dates and full-scale tour plans, and ramp up the documentary launch," Interscope Geffen A&M senior director of marketing Dyana Kass says.
The 38-year-old singer isn't expecting another "Paper Planes"-like smash at this point in her career -- although "Bad Girls," a 2012 single that will be included on "Matangi," became a minor hit thanks in part to a stunt-filled viral video, selling 409,000 copies. Instead, M.I.A. is anxious for fans to hear a more even-tempered side after the sonic assault of "/\/\ /\ Y /\."
"It's a bit emo in places," she says with a laugh. "I developed a little emo side. Didn't think it was possible, did you?"