M.I.A.’s fourth single from her upcoming fourth studio album Matangi came out last week and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it all weekend. Admittedly when I first heard it (just a snippet at the time), I thought “Yeah, it’s pretty good!” and not much else. Then it came back to haunt me a few days later and I had to find it again. It’s sneaky like that.
“Y.A.L.A.” – an acronym for “You Always Live Again” – is Maya’s response to Drake’s “The Motto,” which popularized that social media buzzword Y.O.L.O. That trite, hackneyed phrase wore out its welcome a long time ago, which is why I love everything about “Y.A.L.A.” Not only does it contradict the meaning of Y.O.L.O., but it also feminizes the phrase in a way. It made me think of that interview she gave to Pitchfork years ago when she called out sexism in the music industry and in music journalism. I feel like “Y.A.L.A.” is also partly a callback to that.
The vocals are a little shouty (I won’t be the first to admit it when I say that M.I.A. isn’t the world’s greatest singer – but she’s not terrible) but also enthusiastic. Besides, after giving a listen to Drake, I can’t say the same for “The Motto.” The beats in “Y.A.L.A.” are fantastically heavy and hypnotic, making this one a club hit for sure.
The primary theme of the song, as implied in the title, is the Hindu concept of reincarnation. M.I.A. invokes this theme in the hook, singing “Up and down that pole/Like you’re goin’ up a yo-yo.” Besides the yo-yo spinning around and around and up and down, I imagine a horse on a merry-go-round pole, also going up and down and around and around. It gives the illusion that you’re going somewhere, but you’re not – you’re literally just going in circles.
M.I.A. makes it clear that she’s sick and tired of people committing the same stupid and senseless acts that we’ve been committing for the entirety of human history. Murder, genocide, war, persecution of groups by other groups. “If you only live once, why we keep doing the same shit?” she asks at the song’s outro. No excuses, she wants an answer. “Back home where I come from, we keep being born again and again and then again and again./That’s why they invented karma.” So that we won’t keep making the same mistakes again and again, so that we can better ourselves and our world. But that’s not what we’ve been doing with our lives, is it?