Wednesday, August 08, 2007

M.I.A. – “Kala”

It can be a struggle to see through the hype with M.I.A., past the global music fetishisation that Diplo talked up around the street sounds of Brazilian favela funk, the militant posturing and fluro-ethnic styling. But things may be about to change. Content until now to leave us to insert an influential mate when we weren’t sure where the ideas were coming from, she spoke out recently in an interview with Pitchfork and furiously denied the notion that she defers to her talented friends. “I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can't have any ideas on my own because I'm a female,” she raged.

“For me to come from a mud hut and to be here and shouting in front of a disco, it took me 15 years. And that's all I represent. Everything boiled down is that, that's all it is. If I get it back to Africa, this is what I've accomplished.” This time the album backs up the claim. As it flits around the global bassbin “Kala”’s relationship with its sources seems far less forced – M.I.A. recorded on the road in India, Trinidad, Australia, Japan and London. Shortly after getting a flat in Brooklyn with the intention of settling in New York to work on the record, she ran into visa trouble and was denied entry, and the absence of a metropolitan base proves the record’s saving grace.

But it’s no easier to pin down than its predecessor, either for those looking to summarise the sounds or the objectives of the artist herself. You still listen with half an ear cocked to the possibility that this is all some grand scam perpetrated by a bunch of trustafarians from Notting Hill. But this time the political posturing isn’t quite so thuddingly crass. Instead of shouting about its fourth generation immigrant experience it actually sounds like it as bootlegged world beats collide with the Western version of pop history and the production techniques of contemporary black music.

And, regardless of the tolerance you have for M.I.A.’s delivery, she at least uses ‘rap’ like the democratic medium it ought to be. A point that’s glaringly obvious on “Mango Pickle Down River” which features rapping from four young Aboriginal MCs who sound like a hip hop project in a young offenders institution. Hardly Nas and Primo, then, this is raw, unskilled, and yet oddly compelling in its honesty. “Jimmy” is a rework of an old Bollywood number from a film called Disco Dancer, which M.I.A. was fond of whilst growing up, and provides not only some much-needed dropping of the hip production mask but also one of the album’s most obvious hits. The other is the thrillingly subversive pop of “Paper Planes” which should yet prove to be the first top 10 single about forging passports.

“Boyz” and “Bird Flu” you’ve probably already heard, add to them the Timbaland-produced “Come Around” (relegated to hidden track status) and that adds up to at least five clear single-worthy tracks on a record that’s equally at home with the percussive emissions of “Bamboo Banger” and crunk weirdness of “$20”. You better start taking M.I.A. seriously.


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