If M.I.A.’s debut album restricted itself to her London upbringing and Sri Lankan background, this follow-up album is a far more ambitious project, dauntingly so. Here she is preoccupied with the Third World struggle, in particular the Middle East and Africa, whole swathes of continents in desperate poverty to the point of starvation, ruled by regimes propped up by the US dollar.
It is an intimidating subject to confront especially in the trite arena of pop music, but one can only admire M.I.A. for daring to attempt it; for after all it’s an essential one, perhaps the most relevant issue of modern times, with terrorism and war its constant companions. It may stick in the craw that a pop star should be so audacious to the point of arrogance as to seek to be a voice for the dispossessed of the Third World (“I put people on the map who’ve never seen a map” 20 Dollar
). But somehow I think she manages it. Perhaps because she is herself an outsider, a refugee raised on a West London council estate, part of an underclass that spices its native Asian tongue with a hybrid of cockney and Jamaican patois.
But she succeeds only because these global issues are the backdrop, not the forefront, against which life is played out. She is concerned with the global only to the extent of how it impinges on the individual; the political forever juxtaposing with the personal. Take the insanely catchy single Jimmy
, an Indian Bollywood pop song about a soldier missing in action. A verse such as “When you go Rwanda, Congo/ take me on the genocide tour/ take me on a truck to Darfur” rubs shoulders with bubblegum love-struck lyrics such as “You told me that you’re busy/ your loving makes me crazy/ I know that you hear me/ start acting like you want me.”
Sure, M.I.A. is provocative; provocative enough to be initially denied a US visa due to her suspected terrorist sympathies. But she is not even close to being worthy; she never offers any easy answers. Most of all she is fun. Throughout this album there is a joy in life, a joy in language, a joy in sound itself. The fact that she is not a musician stops her from immersing herself in one particular style. Indeed she flits like a musical magpie, from US house to African jungle to Arabic street markets to Jamaican ragga to Brazilian soca, even Aboriginal music; a bewildering journey from hip hop to trance to indie (Jonathan Richman, Pixies, the Clash, New Order).
There is still the booming bass lines and pulsing beats of her debut album, but here there are more layers, more colours; and always a light touch, such as the squawking shrieks in Birdflu
, the nursery rhyme “na na na’s” of Boyz
or the cash machine ker-chings of the pure pop single Paper Planes
. But scratch off the sugary coating of these new syrupy melodies and a bitterer pill can be tasted:
“So I woke up with my holy qur’an/ and found out I like allah-lah/ so we shooting and looting to get by/who made me like this/ was it me and God in co-production/ all I want is one thing/ and that is what you got.” (20 Dollar