The short history of M.I.A. can be summed up as a whirlwind series of events that began in her childhood, as the daughter of a Tamil revolutionary whom was hiding from the Sri Lankan army. Running off with her mother and the rest of her family, they ultimately ended up as refugees in London, where Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam learned the English language, and learned to appreciate the music of 80′s hip-hop acts like Public Enemy and Roxanne Shante. Fast-forward to 2005, after her debut single, “Galang” caught on like wildfire, she signed with XL Recordings (eventually moving to Universal), and saw her debut album Arular (named after her father), garner great critical acclaim. With Kala, this time named after her mother, all eyes are on M.I.A., to see if she can deliver a successful sophomore sequel.
The album opens with “Bamboo Banga”, employing a pumping bassline that builds as it progresses, as M.I.A. hypnotically delivers her lyrics. Producer Switch also employs this same type of hyper up-tempo rhythm on “World Town”, but is one-upped on “XR2″, as partner Diplo co-produces this ridiculous Baltimore house influenced track. Here, M.I.A. trades her usual energetic high voiced cries for a more laid back, breathy delivery.
While M.I.A. seems to work best over B-more beats, she’s isn’t afraid to embrace her cultural heritage. “Bird Flu” is probably the best way to describe the track of the same name, as this truly sick beat employs a heavy drum riddim, along with chicken squawks and the chants of Sri Lankin children. In this heavily self-referencing track, M.I.A. shuns conviction bragging “Heard the call to be a Roc-A-Wear model / didn’t really drop that way, my legs hit the hurdle / heard the call to be a rocker on a label / didn’t really drop that way, my beats were too evil”. The chanting “Boyz” follows, another ill combination of B-more and dancehall rhythms, that you can’t help but at least nod your head to and perhaps even shake your ass to (gasp!).
With her second album, M.I.A. doesn’t really stick to the script, thinking outside the box a bit. “Jimmy” is kind of a poppy love song with a beat that sounds like it came from a Bollywood disco soundtrack, while “Paper Planes” finds M.I.A. singing about hustling over a slow-rolling, mellow bass-built beat.
These selections are decent, but unfortunately the album hits a series of snags in it’s second half. The biggest mistake here is “Mango Pickle Down River”, where M.I.A. invites a group of nine-year old boys (The Wilcannia Mob) to rhyme alongside her. The results are disastrous, to say the least, in something that could have been have been shaved down to a 30-second skit, rather than a four-minute snoozer. After you are all nice and bored out of your mind, the anemic pair of “20 Dollar” and “The Turn”, which follow, don’t help the situation. Thankfully, the Timbaland produced “Come Around”, which closes the album out helps redeem things a bit, but truthfully isn’t the banger we expected from this long-awaited collaboration.
Perhaps the reason why M.I.A.’s debut was so well received was because expectations weren’t as high as they are in the case of Kala. Kala has its moments, but this time around M.I.A. has a hard time picking a style, as she is all over the map with a cavalcade of different sounds. It’s also noted that she seems to have taken less of a political stance this time around, which is to be expected, as this album is inspired by her mother, rather than her father. Truth be told though, Arular’s mix of danceable songs laced with politically charged lyrics are what made it such a gem in the first place. Kala has it’s moments, but ultimately we’d be picking Arular in a game of “Sophie’s Choice”. – D.T. Swinga
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