Where to start with an album as explosively ambitious as Kala? Bamboo Banga’s Doppler effect engines, scrunchy beats and distorted vocals about driving at 100mph is where Maya Arulpragasam prefers to kick this extraordinary global hip-hop/dancehall smash-up off, and she’s not a lady to argue with.
This follow-up to Sri Lanka-born M.I.A.’s critically acclaimed Arular, with a gaudy sleeve reminiscent of labelmates Basement Jaxx, has been hotly anticipated. M.I.A.’s decision to unleash two tracks from the record onto the web provoked much chat over the summer in blogging circles and no wonder, when one of those songs was BirdFlu.
The first big moment of the album, part avian squawk, part tribal dancehall floor filler, this is as big a declaration of intent as anyone has released this year. Amongst the clattering drums is what could either be a chainsaw or a velociraptor sample. Paired with the squawking, it makes for a track quite unlike any other on a record in which it is completely at home.
Boyz was also released ahead of the album. Ostensibly a ditty by a girl about the opposite sex, M.I.A.’s lyrics ask how many boys are crazy and how many start a war. Mango Pickle Down River is different again. Featuring a troupe of rapping aboriginal teenagers by the collective name of The Wilcannia Mob, it fiddles about with a didgeridoo sample while the teenagers account for jumping off bridges and playing “some D”. Here she is doing what she does best – weaving the sounds and statements of the people she’s writing about into the song itself.
She has more surprises in store. Jimmy heads straight to Bollywood soundtrack territory, albeit with an energetic rhythm. Paper Planes, one of the many standouts, finds M.I.A., daughter of a Tamil Tiger rebel, firing and reloading a gun while telling that “some I murder, some (a some) I let go”. Most rappers would sound cliched with such effects – M.I.A. gets away with it. With her history (documented elsewhere), she’s the real deal. Later tracks are less immediate, but still struck through with humour. XR2 is an intentionally gaudy number dedicated to the raver drivers of the early ’90s Ford of the title, complete with their pills.
Come Around, the album’s closer, features the ubiquitous Timbaland, perhaps as a sop to commercial aspirations. Bjork‘s Volta earlier this year also featured the uber-producer. Yet he’s not all these two artists share. Both have a singular vision and a unique style of interpreting the world around them through music that results in both being compelling. While M.I.A.’s music rarely sounds anything like that of Iceland’s favourite daughter, their current tribal rousings do share parallels of occasional brilliance.
Her stated intention with this record was to give the third world a voice. “The Third World deserves freedom of speech like everyone else,” she challenges. Hop-scotching from India via the council estates of London to the outback of Australia and the urban jungle of the United States, M.I.A. picks up the themes and the beats of where she is. Unlike the similarly globetrotting Nitin Sawhney, whose exercises in global inclusivity teeter on the designed, M.I.A. rings authentic with the tongue-in-cheek World Town and 20 Dollar.
For some, the unremitting noise mash-up that is Kala will prove too much too soon. They’ll be in a minority though – for everyone else, this is a record as substantive as it is stylish. Get over her blue wig and nondescript voice, if you can, and the lyrics will cause a pause for thought even as the beats are shaking your body. As the lady herself says, “I think it’s going to take a few listens, but you gotta give people the benefit of the doubt.” When you do, you can’t help but admire Kala.