British-born Maya Arulpragasam’s sophomore release, Kala , is a lot like the pseudonym she raps under: its specific genre-style is Missing in Action. Arulpragasam—known in the music world as M.I.A.—has released a stunning album that synthesizes far-flung styles and motley world music influences as diverse as Jamaican reggae, Bollywood and Caribbean pop.
M.I.A.’s moniker is fitting for her personal history as well as musical sense: The daughter of a Sri Lankan Tamil activist-turned-militant, her family shuttled from London to Jaffna to the safety of Chennai and back to Jaffna, finally settling as refugees in culturally diverse South London.
It was as an early teen that she was exposed to hip-hop and rap, and she eventually began mixing her own electro beats with dancehall sounds and politically-charged lyrics after studying at a London art college.
Her 2005 debut album, Arular, sold a humble 1,30,000 copies, but her reach in independent music circles was far; she signed with the Universal Music subsidiary, Interscope, for her follow-up. During production of Kala, Arulpragasam faced visa delays in returning to the US (purportedly for her controversial political stances). And instead, she recorded while travelling to far-flung locales such as India, Trinidad and Australia.
Kala is self-consciously over-produced: samples of gun shots, barnyard squeals and cash registers are mixed with pure dhol sounds or midi-sampled steel drums; she ironically dissects what is conventional in pop hip-hop hits.
In Paper Planes, she pauses for a vocal interlude: for any other typical rapper (think Jay-Z or Eminem), this would showcase a gleeful self-boasting rap. “M.I.A., Third World Democracy,” she proclaims, almost jokingly. “Yea, I got more records than the KGB. So, uh, no funny business.”
The catchy Na-na-na of Boyz makes it a stuck-in-your-head dance tune and, as the album’s first single, it will likely be a hit. The drums on Boyz were recorded in India.
Notoriously politically-charged, her lyrics are front-and-centre; though at times hard to discern and seemingly cryptic, her lyricism more often lacks substance. The song 20 Dollar refers to the cost of AK-47s in Africa and she rattles off lines such as “Price of living in a shanty town just seems to be high.”
But other lines, such as those from the track Mango Pickle Down River, seem downright silly: “I like fish and mango pickle/When I climb trees them feet them tickle,” she raps in the track.
The influence of Bollywood, in particular, is remarkable. The track Jimmy is an extraordinary cover of a song from the cheesy 1982 Bollywood flick, Disco Dancer. And while I’m not familiar with the original, her Jimmy features overly-synthesized orchestral strings and jumping disco beats and lyrics that will resonate among dance-pop crowds—even 25 years later.
And the album’s second track, Bird Flu, feels like a remixed Punjabi wedding procession—complete with cat calls, hollering and a driving dhol. The mix features a song from the 2003 award-winning Tamil film, Jayam.
The Turn is a dance hall-feeling ballad with West African djembe (a skin-coloured hand drum) tapping and undulating overly-synthetic bass sounds. Like the music, the album art is a gaudy mash-up: seemingly political maxims (“Welcome to the terror D’OH!”)—and was designed by M.I.A..
The 12 tracks of Kala are driving, mostly fast and stunning musical amalgamations. The remixes of the Bollywood songs and retake of Indian music are reasons enough to get the album and, if you can swallow the sometimes hollow lyrics, Kala will be one of this year’s most coveted.
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