Friday, September 21, 2007
M.I.A.’s Newest Album "Kala" WILL Be the Soundtrack for the Next Dozen iSchool Dance Parties
The Sri Lankan-by-way-of-London rapper M.I.A. (or Maya Arulpragasum, if you prefer) is no stranger to ass-shaking. Her 2005 debut Arular was easily one of the funkiest albums of that year, with its grimy electro beats and much-reviled rhymes about the Palestine Liberation Organization. I was depressed and living in Olympia, WA at the time of its release, and I always used to say that it was an album that made me wish that I had friends so that I could invite them over for a dance party.
With Kala, M.I.A. has indeed come back, in her words, “with power, power.” Mostly recorded during an extended Third World-tour, the songs here are even more globally-minded than on her debut and infused with a hungry, occasionally bloodthirsty, energy. Opener “Bamboo Banga” starts on a fairly inauspicious note, with scratchy Detroit techno drums and M.I.A. intoning the lyrics to Jonathan Richman’s 1976 proto-punk classic “Roadrunner” with her customary sing-songy delivery and thick British accent. It builds slowly, with African hand-drums growing in the mix until, suddenly, Bollywood strings swoop in from nowhere and you’ve got a full-on rocker on your hands. It’s a brilliant opening, taking the audience from the minimalist sound of her debut to the more complex palate of the follow-up in this one song. It’s equal parts mission statement and bangin’ opener.
This raucous pace keeps up through the first half of Kala, as does the free-associative sampling (or blatant stealing). Lead single “Bird Flu” rides on frantic tribal drums and chicken squawks. Stand-out “Jimmy” is actually a cover of an 80’s Bollywood number that Maya remembers dancing to as a kid, complete with swirling strings and canned disco rhythms (check out the psychedelic video at the end of this review). “Mango Pickle Down River” is built around a didgeridoo loop, a human beat-box, and the rhymes of The Wilcannia Mob, a pre-adolescent group of Aboriginal rappers. If it sounds weird it is, but it also achieves M.I.A.’s goal of putting “people on the map that never seen a map” in an exciting way.
Halfway through things finally slow down a bit, and it’s here that M.I.A.’s violently revolutionary lyrics and problematic politics come strikingly to the fore. The cut “$20,” is a delirious bit of psychedelia, biting the bass-line from New Order’s “Blue Monday” and the immortal chorus of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” while discussing the price of AK-47 assault rifles in Africa. In the next track “World Town” a call-and-response style chorus exhorts the audience “Hands up/guns out/represent/the World Town.” The woozy penultimate track “Paper Planes” uses the sound of gunshots as Maya (channeling Wreckx-N-Effect) pronounces “All I wanna do is a [blam! blam! blam! blam]/and a [ka-ching!]/ and take your money!”
What are listeners to make of this kind of posturing? It is in many respects very violent music, and the pacifist in me cringes at the idea of excusing this violence simply because it is so charmingly packaged. This album has far more sampled gunshots on it than any other album I own, and hearing them the first time was a bit jarring and unsettling. Maya's own father has ties to the Sri Lankan revolutionary group the Tamil Tigers, so her affinity for political violence makes a certain amount of sense, and it's brave of her to be so vocal about it in the age of the NSA. It's small wonder she had to cancel her performance at last May's Sasquatch Music Festival due to visa issues (which created no small amount of sadness in the heart of this reviewer).
However, closer examination reveals that M.I.A.’s polemic is both universal and hollow, advocating a kind of global liberation and freedom as an ideal, but not connecting itself to any movement or plan. There's an obvious and admirable concern for the plight of people the world over, but her revolutionary pronouncements become muddled and contradictory. She wants to fight “The Man,” but she doesn’t want to stop and figure out who or what “The Man” is.
Ultimately, M.I.A. shows herself to be more interested in shaking asses than equalizing classes. “Come Down,” the album’s closing duet with uber-producer Timbaland is all about the booty and also more relaxed than anything else here. It’s a stark reminder that this is all just pop music, but M.I.A.’s global perspective and sense of justice are both refreshing and invigorating.
This is a terrific and, I would argue, essential album. There’s not a weak song on here, and it’s guaranteed to keep your blood pumping over the course of the coming winter months. Buy this and start your own dance party immediately. Just be sure to invite me.
Jimmy Music Video