Review Summary: No sophomore slump in sight for this fearless hip-hop goddess.
Her name is Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, but you can just call her M.I.A. And in the case of her sophomore album, her stage moniker probably stands for “making it apparent” instead of “missing in action.” Kala was released on August 21 on XL Recordings. It’s M.I.A.’s sophomore album, after 2005 release “Arular” The album made its debut at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at No. 1 on the U.S. Electronic Charts, and was voted Mixmag’s album of the month in its September issue.
With her latest release, the U.K.-born Sri Lankan rhymestress delivers a well-placed, feminine-fueled kick to the groin of cookie-cutter mainstream music. A psychedelic, eye-poppingly bright and highly-pixillated graffiti-stenciled cover design – one of her own - gives only a minimal hint of the explosive earful that awaits inside the case.
Although officially categorized in the “world” music genre, Kala ultimately defies definition. M.I.A.’s fusion of afro-punk, electro-funk, reggae and acid-washed industrial dancehall grooves along with tribal and drum ‘n’ bass beats creates a sound unlike any other on the market. Every track on Kala is markedly different in tone, tempo and technique. It does, however, sound like it could have been somewhat influenced by U.K.- and record-label counterpart, electronica group Basement Jaxx. In fact, the beat and vocal style from first single “Bamboo Banga” could be the distant cousin of that from BJ’s similarly titled “Bingo Bango” from 1999 album Remedy.
M.I.A.’s background is nearly as diverse and colorful as her music. Born in Hounslow, London and raised in Sri Lanka, she hardly knew her father, a Tamil militant hiding from the Sri Lankan Army, according to wikipedia.org. With continual pressure from an escalating war, she moved to India with her family, then back to Sri Lanka after financial struggles. They finally settled back in London as refugees, where the then-11 Arulpragasam began to learn the English language and was exposed to Western radio, from which she gained an affinity for rap and hip hop music.
Visual artist, rapper, singer, songwriter, producer, activist – is there anything Rolling Stone’s “guerilla goddess” can’t do? Apparently not. Kala is an exercise in ingenuity. From the flowy Middle Eastern soundscapes of “Jimmy” – which is a cover of “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” from 1982 Bollywood film “Disco Dancer” - to the choppy, trance-based “Birdflu” and “XR2,” the record is a DJ’s dream. It’s not always easy to decipher the songs’ heavy-accented, ambiguous lyrics (“Hus sel hus sel hus sel/grind grind grind/Why has everyone got hussel on their mind?” from “Hussel”). However, there are some sublimely, albeit questionable, insightful moments (“Sick of all the s--- that’s keeping me down/ If your dead from the waist down its easy staying down” from “World Town”).
The laid-back subdued hip-hop rhythms of “Mango Pickle Down River,” with guest vocals from the Wilcannia Mob, slow the tempo of the record down and provide a track for chilling out to. Deep-house sounding “20 Dollar” is heavy on the electronic effects and repeats a line from the Pixie’s “Fight Club” closing anthem (“Where is my mind?”). Beat-laden “World Town,” sounds like it would be perfect for a stomp routine. Eleventh track, “Paper Planes,” samples The Clash’s 1982 song “Straight to Hell” and is marked by a finger-snapping beat and gunshot and cash-register-ching sound effects.
While it won’t satisfy some music enthusiasts' taste – namely those who crave consistency and normality – Kala deserves major kudos for not only exploring uncharted territory, but for sticking a flag inscribed with “M.I.A.” in the ground and claiming ownership of it.