M.I.A.: The Billboard Cover Story
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.
As she was writing and recording, "it really seemed like my world was getting smaller and closing in around me at the same time that things were changing so fast. I couldn't keep up with it. It was the best year for me because my son was born and the worst year for me seeing so many Tamil people being killed. And then it was the best year for me because I found someone to settle down with, then the worst year because I couldn't leave [due to visa restrictions] and my mum couldn't come and see me. My album came out like that because that's how it was."
Interscope executive VP of marketing and publicity Dennis Dennehy says the label sees no problem working with that complicated message. "The biggest artists in music are never not provocative," he says. "It's who she is, and it's what makes her appealing. It's what draws you in."
"She's a controversial artist, and she always has been," senior director of marketing Dyana Kass adds. "That's nothing new. When she does something it makes noise." With regard to the New York Times fallout, "people are paying attention to her who might not have been already," Kass continues. "That is what it is."
Dennehy calls "/\/\ /\ Y /\" a "classic case of artist development, where she's built an audience over time that's now ready for that record where an artist really captures a moment." XL Recordings chief Richard Russell, who oversees M.I.A.'s releases in the United Kingdom, agrees: "If you listen to her three albums, she's gotten better with every record."
Better or not, there's no doubting that the new set is poised to make a bigger impact out of the gate than "Kala" did. "The anticipation is through the roof," says M.I.A.'s publicist, Jennie Boddy, who's now managing her client's career as well. "Whether they agree or disagree with what she says, people are interested. It's an exciting moment."
According to Kass, Interscope's rollout "is about trying to figure out who that consumer is and where they live and breathe. We're really trying to drill down into what the picture of her audience is and make sure that everything we do feels authentic to her." Kass says all of M.I.A.'s original fans-"the tastemaker community, the world-music enthusiasts, the fashionistas"-have stuck with her, but that the success of "Paper Planes" "obviously opened her up to a much larger audience. So it's a matter of making sure we're covering that base while also making sure the new consumer is aware of the campaign."
The label made its first move in April at Coachella, where a blimp circled the sky above the festival's grounds announcing the upcoming release. "That seemed like a good place to start," Kass says, "with a nice cross-section of her audience." Then M.I.A. premiered on her website the video for "Born Free," an exceedingly violent nine-minute short film directed by Romain Gavras, the son of director Costa-Gavras. The video, banned from YouTube, "did exactly what it was meant to do: Get out there and get people talking," Kass says.
In yet another sign of the incongruity that defines "/\/\ /\ Y /\," the video for "XXXO" was recently shot by Hype Williams, the rap-video auteur behind such high-gloss clips as Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" and the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money Mo Problems." "When I was like, 'I want Hype to shoot the video,' everybody was like, 'No way-he's a nightmare!' " M.I.A says. "But he was amazing to work with." She adds that "it was interesting to take someone like Hype and mash him up with my aesthetic, just because it's so far removed. Sometimes when you do that you get some interesting shit, and I think the 'XXXO' video is going to be the perfect balance of both worlds."
A Jay-Z remix of "XXXO" is also nearing completion, an element Kass says the label plans to "go everywhere" with prior to the album's release date. (She expects the video to premiere on a yet-to-be-determined outlet toward the end of June.) Additionally, M.I.A. is scheduled to appear July 13 on "Late Show With David Letterman" and July 14 on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
In the retail space, "/\/\ /\ Y /\" will arrive in the 12-song standard edition as well as in a deluxe package with a lenticular cover and four extra tracks, including a Blaqstarr-produced slow jam called "Caps Lock" that Mark Williams says "shows off an entirely different side of Maya."
Although the placement of "Paper Planes" in a trailer for the Seth Rogen comedy "Pineapple Express" fueled much of that song's success, Boddy says licensing doesn't occupy a significant portion of Maya's focus. "She considers things depending on whether or not they fit within her moral-scape and her aesthetic," the manager says. " 'Paper Planes' was only in the trailer; it wasn't in the movie. She'd want to see the scene, to see if her song fit in context. If the other party is open to doing something that's not status quo, then she's open to it. But it has to be a discussion."
M.I.A. says touring will play a more prominent role in the "/\/\ /\ Y /\" campaign than it has for previous albums. "This time around I'm slightly more prepared," she says. "It just seems more solid. Last time, because I had visa issues, I didn't prepare myself enough, because I was like, 'Oh, I'm never going to get it anyway.' And then suddenly it came around and I was like, 'Shit!' Making all my visuals and animating stuff without sleeping for days-I felt like I was at college trying to get my shit in and the deadline was tomorrow."
She'll debut her new live show at a pair of festivals presented by L.A.-based Hard Events: Hard LA on July 17 and Hard NYC on July 24. "I've been trying to book her for one of my shows since I started doing this," Hard chief Gary Richards says. "She's definitely at the center of what's cool in our universe." Both concerts will also feature performances by two acts signed to N.E.E.T.: young Baltimore MC Rye Rye and New York noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells.
M.I.A. is also scheduled to play England's Big Chill and Underage festivals this summer, while an extensive North American tour is tentatively set to launch in September. According to XL managing director Ben Beardsworth, "Conventional dates in the U.K. will be a big part of driving record sales in the latter part of the year."
M.I.A. has plans to expand N.E.E.T. as well, from a record label into what she describes as "a creative collective" complete with photographers and visual artists. Following Sleigh Bells' "Treats," which was released May 11 in a joint venture between M.I.A.'s label and Q Prime's Mom + Pop Music, N.E.E.T. will issue Rye Rye's debut, "Go! Pop! Bang!," later this year through Interscope. "M.I.A. was there with me every day from when I started recording my album to when I finished," Rye Rye says. "She was pregnant then, but each day she'd come to the studio to lay the direction and add sounds into songs."
If all of that seems like an overflowing workload, M.I.A. doesn't disagree. "It is difficult to juggle everything," she admits, her train approaching the Channel Tunnel. "But luckily we have the Internet, and I can stay connected and on top of it."
"She knows all of this is a massive undertaking, but this is who she's chosen to be," Boddy says. "It's just part of her makeup." The manager laughs. "Who's the hardest-working person in show business? James Brown? Well, Maya might be gunning for his title."