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M.I.A - Kala Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    8
released:    2007
label:    Interscope
reviewer:    Matt Fink

ImageThough it’s only natural that artists would encounter a certain amount of trouble in seeing their creative vision through to its completion, the list of albums that have succeeded not in spite of but because of creative difficulties lends credence to the idea that a measure of discomfort is needed to fuel great art. From the Beatles growing so tired of each other that The White Album grew into a perfectly sprawling amalgam of four men who couldn’t stand to be in the same studio to Neil Young drunkenly slurring his way through his grief on Tonight’s the Night, some of the greatest albums in the rock canon where driven by circumstances that took them far away from their original design. Barred from entering the United States to work with a series of handpicked producers, M.I.A. was pushed into creative purgatory, roaming the world while waiting for an answer as to why she was being denied a work visa. Because of that, Kala is now one of those albums.

An unlikely “It” girl, Maya Arulpragasam arrived in the United States in 2005 and immediately was recognized as one of the artists who would lead pop music into its next phase of development. In truth, there had never been anyone quite like her before, as the mix of third world politics, hip-hop production, and electronic hooks on 2005’s Arular represented the first significant revision of western pop by an artist from South Asia. But more than that, she had a remarkable gift for understanding where different forms of music could clash and coincide in new and unprecedented ways. Hip-hop, baile funk, reggae, ragga, dancehall – it was all in mix, and M.I.A. proved herself remarkably adept at finding the commonalities that united them all, namely poverty. Beyond any genre or sociological movement, though, she represented the idea of one artist blending the world’s music into one pop form, and the stakes were unimaginably high for her next release.

Originally conceptualized as an album of comparably light-hearted dance party songs that would allow uber-producer Timbaland to sprinkle his hit-making magic over her heavily rhythmic pop hooks, that world-conquering album would never quite materialize. Instead, she began a trek through the Third World, taking something from each stop. The result is an album that’s even more varied, more organic, and more richly imagined. Even better, it captures the moment that M.I.A., left to rely only on herself, emerges as a singularly focused artist. It’s not an album of Top 40 club thumpers, but it’s arguably an even more penetrating statement, further pushing the spirit of the Third World into the realm of Western pop. Informed by her frustration over being denied return entry into the country where she had moved just a year earlier, the album is rife with references to a refugee’s plight, with mentions of border check points and the fear of war. These are songs written from an insider’s perspective, with the insights of a person who has been on both sides of the struggle. “I hate money because it makes me numb,” she breathlessly purrs on “Hussel,” one of the many tracks on which she uses the language and imagery of hip-hop to both contrast and connect the struggles of those in American ghettos to the poor in the Third World. The dirge-like “$20” is another, with M.I.A. presenting the offensiveness of American wealth in the face of African poverty. “War, war, war/you made me like this,” she mutters ominously, expressing confusion over the pathological and destructive thirst for riches at any cost.

Despite her gifts with the conventional tools of the pop trade, where M.I.A. really shines is in incorporating samples of traditional music from the countries she visited during her exile from the U.S. From the chants of children and indigenous Indian drummers in the furiously churning “Bird Flu” to the didgeridoo drones and slice-of-rapping of the adolescent Australian boys of the Wilcannia Mob on “Mango Pickle Down River,” many of the album’s most disarmingly immediate moments come via M.I.A.’s exceptional gift for putting your feet in Third World soil and faces on the people whose plight she’s writing about. Turns out when she claims “I put people on the map/that never seen a map,” it’s not an empty boast.

Though she didn’t quite end up with the pop album she originally intended, there are moments where she flexes her muscles as a tunesmith. Lifting the spirit and the hook of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” for “Bamboo Banger,” M.I.A. announces her return over minimal beats and manipulated vocal samples, only here she’s pounding on your Hummer to tell you she’s hungry. Even more pop-minded is her garish cover of “Jimmy,” a Bollywood song she knew as a child that allows M.I.A. to strike her first real diva pose, with swooning old school disco strings and luminescent keys providing the album’s most radio-ready moment. The lone track produced by Timbaland, “Come Around” hints at what could have been, with one of M.I.A.’s smoothest raps unraveling over a characteristically playful Timbaland rhythmic track and slinky guitar figure. That said, tacked on the end, the track seems little more than an afterthought, a somewhat ill-fitting addendum to an album that didn’t need it.

At the end of the day, these are songs steeped in the pride shared through the mutual struggle of impoverished people, and the time she used looking for inspiration in India, Australia, Liberia and Jamaica was well spent. “Hands up/guns out/represent the world town” she chants over stomping beats and sickly keyboard bleats, making for one of the more unusual sing-along anthems in recent memory. Even more arresting is “Paper Planes,” a startling commentary on the desperation of poverty complete with cash register hooks and gunshot beats that sounds like an otherworldly mash-up of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” and Wreckz-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker.” “I fly like paper, get high like planes/if you catch me at the border I have visas in my name,” she coos disinterestedly, a carefully mewling guitar line carrying her weary refrain of only wanting to “take your money.” Exhausted and frustrated, it’s the perfect summary statement for an album that attempts to bring the whole world into focus and nearly succeeds.

Taken as a whole, Kala may not be the album M.I.A. wanted to make, but it may very well end up the album she spends the rest of her career trying to top. A flawless culmination of everything she has hinted at previously, it’s the rare album that truly does offer something to everyone. For fans of experimental hip-hop, it’s an immaculately produced and arranged album of beats and hooks that take multiple listens to unravel and dissect. For the socially conscious, it’s an ornately detailed tour through the imagination of an artist whose heart still beats with the rhythm of the downtrodden, with very few words wasted or lazy rhymes. In short, it’s an album born of difficulty but dense with content, the work of a master artist making the best of a bad situation.

Despite having four producers dropping by to lend their talents to the 12 tracks, the album retains a unified feel, with distorted synthesizers and complex, dirty beats dominating every track. As before, the production is dense, affording little open space in any of the mixes, with viscerally tangled beats and lo-fi keyboards jostling for position with recorded traditional drummers and playful sound effects. (That said, the Timbaland-produced “Come Around” is too glossy and hi-fi to really fit the rest of the album.) Though she sounds more confident as a vocalist, her rapping is still doubled and tripled and often surprisingly low in the mix, allowing the production to assume an even greater role than it would have otherwise. All in all, it’s not an album that will dazzle with detail (even on high end equipment), but its various elements unite to hit with a careful precision.

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