Review Summary: Lack of a Visa hardly hinders M.I.A on her sophomore release.
Sri Lanka is a pear shaped island off the south east coast of India. A quick Wikipedia search by a certain lazy Sputnikmusic.com staff writer reveals the country is renowned for its beautiful rain forests and is home to a number of violent militant groups. Of these facts, the former is used as a fairly insignificant description of the country itself, while the latter actually ties in quite nicely to this review (keep reading, you’ll see.) Of these Sri Lankan militant groups, the one that ties in best is EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students.) It was started by a number of people, all with equally hard-to-pronounce names, one of whom, known as Arul Pragasm, would go on to birth the woman known to the world as M.I.A.. M.I.A. (real name: Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) would in turn go on to become a citizen of the United Kingdom and release a revolutionary pop album called Arular (named after her father, who but?).
See how that worked out?
Now, M.I.A’s brand of dank, minimalist electronic hip-hop (closely related to that which is commonly referred to as Grime, I suppose) does not automatically scream “I’M FROM SOUTH CENTRAL ASIA”, but what popular music does these days? Though M.I.A’s sound certainly takes many an influence from the world music one would associate with the area, as well as from Dancehall and a bunch of other Jamaican associated sub genres that a suburban whitey like myself would never listen to. Her second album, Kala, was (or will be) released in the summer of 2007, and it definitely sets itself apart from Arular within the first track. This time the album title is named for Maya’s mother, and early on she declared it to be considerably less “masculine” than her first release. I’m not sure about femininity, but when compared to Arualar, Kala is certainly a darker affair, less grimy, and certainly less urban. Effects are a big part of the album’s sound, but just as much a part of the opus is organic, world music instruments, including a healthy smattering of Bongos and Tablas to oppose the usual hefty synthesizer sound M.I.A. employs. Parts of the album are entirely foreign, and those are the parts that keep the album new and exciting. The other parts manifest themselves into a kind of bizarre Hip-Hop, and those are the parts that keep the album fun and relatable. The combination of brassy synthesizers and organic, Indian percussion in the Pixies n’ New Order-biting 20 Dollar is a perfect example of this effect. Cool to say the least. Maya has hit some sort of trip-hop goldmine with this album, and it’s clear that she has just decided to pack up and run with it.
Coming from her background it wouldn’t take a psychic to predict a healthy amount of political presence in M.I.A.’s lyrics. The first single, Boyz, lulls one into a false sense of security with its cutely misspelled title and danceable beat, before assaulting the listener with its devoutly feminist anti-war statements. “How many no money boys are crazy?/how many boys are raw?/how many no money boys are rowdy?/how many start a war?” she asks over a sugar n’ spikes beat and between choruses of na-na’s. Not exactly the kind of song you’d expect from the daughter of a prominent militant. The song’s squelchy synths and sped up samples are a perfect example of the album’s more hip-hop oriented side, while blasts of tabla and a couple of perfectly positioned sea lion barks instantly clear up the notion that this is your ordinary hip-hop track. But Maya’s political leanings hardly come more clearly into focus during the jarring chorus of Clash-sampling Paper Planes, where she and a few more young children sing an angry ode to the US government. “All I wanna do is *GUN SHOTS*/And *SOUND OF CASH REGISTER OPENING*/And take your money” before announcing “M.I.A./Third world democracy/Yeah, I got more records than the K.G.B./So, uh, no funny business.”
Vocally Maya will also erase near all pre-Kala notions about her slightly limited singing abilities. Her voice is a ghostly coo on The Turn, which, in turn, is also the least Grime based track on the disc. She employs the help of a couple young kids to back her up with some verses over the eerily ghost-like bass beats of Mango Pickle Down River. Second single, Jimmy, is another song to reverse your preconceptions. It’s instantly recognizable cinematic hook and 1970’s-style dance drumming twist together into some sort of bastardized half-disco, half-Bollywood Movie Soundtrack song, with Maya’s longingly breathy calls highly reminiscent of another Asian indie princess, Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino. Needless to say, it’s one of the coolest singles of the year, and an instant album highlight. Bird Flu, the Timbaland produced Come Around, and album opener, Bamboo Banga (the latter of which oozes with Panda Bear influence) would also fit into that category, along with a couple of those aforementioned ones of course. Kala is definitely a song-based album, but, that being said, the songs fit together perfectly, and even more surprisingly, they’re all good. M.I.A. stands on the edge of all the sophomore slump (you don’t even know how much I did not want to use this term) pitfalls and instead of falling in, makes an album worthy of applause.