M.I.A. Kala

[XL/Interscope; 2007]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: hip-hop, dub, dancehall
Others: Lady Sovereign, Kanye West, Diplo

For those somehow able to tune out the internet natterings anticipating her debut a couple years ago, M.I.A. offered a mission statement on "Bucky Done Gun" when she implored London (among others) to “Quiet down/ I need to make a sound.” Many adjectives have since been bandied about attempting to describe just what that sound was and is, so it's a credit to her integrity that she continues to defy classification, commodification, and, Nelly Furtadification (see her politely oblique descriptions of working with Timbaland). But even a cursory listen to Kala reveals that integrity isn't really an issue ("A protocol to be a rocker on a label?/ It didn't really drop that way; my beats were too evil,” she sneers on "BirdFlu"). If anything, the album nips in the bud any presuppositions about the selling out implicit in sophomore slumps by striking curiously dialectical poses. Kala is panoptic in scope, yet deeply personal in execution; antagonistic in one couplet and seductive in the next; unhinged, unrelenting, but also compassionate. Where could Maya Arulpragasam possibly have gone after Arular? Everywhere.

Take the above-mentioned "BirdFlu," for example, a rabble-rousing anthem with sonic boom-bass. M.I.A. waxes promiscuous in one turn of phrase and revolutionary in the next: “I have my heart down, so I need a man for romance/ Streets are making 'em hard so they selfish little roamers/ Jumpin' girl to girl, make us meat like burgers/ When I get fat I'm gon' pop me out some leaders.” The track is paired with "Boyz," which takes a similarly subversive thematic approach (“How many no money boyz are rowdy/ How many start a war?”), but does so over an infectious, Kanye-esque bit of Bollywood sampling. (Un)Appropriately enough, the Hindi disco "Jimmy" follows, a song M.I.A. claimed she had to be drunk enough to record. Girl's got a sense of humor in there somewhere.

One thing she's not joking about, however, is what she perceived to be unfair credit given to Diplo for the distinctively grimy beats on Arular, as the production credits for Kala are by and large listed as collaborations between M.I.A. and the "fidget house" producer Switch (whose occasionally meandering rhythms and voice distortions provide the weaker moments of the album). But when Diplo sounds those favela horns on "XR2," it seems like M.I.A. is ready to let the manufactured animosity be blasted away. Instead, she patters through the thicket of noise in a breathy, disinterested monotone. At first, you're itching for her to tear into such a juicy beat. But after a couple of listens, you realize it's a tactful deference that allows her to be in the mix without commandeering it. She could if she wanted to, but she's passed that. Arular was all about Maya making sounds 'til someone stood up and listened. Kala is her speaking for masses whose collective voice will be heard all over the world.

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