M.I.A. is code for Maya Arulpragasam, a young woman who grew up amid civil war and poverty in Sri Lanka before moving to London as a child, where she made her mark first as a scenester and visual artist, then as a musician with her 2005 debut album, Arular. The tension between First World and Third World drove M.I.A.'s music, the artist's own beatwise confusion making Arular not just a critical smash but a small hit — with a video on MTV(2), appearances by the single "Galang" in a Honda commercial and on HBO's Entourage, and album sales well in excess of 100,000.
On Arular, M.I.A. came across as a radicalized, international answer to American hip-hop star Missy Elliott. Less exuberant, less swaggering, and less confrontational, M.I.A.'s perhaps unlikely sophomore triumph, Kala, is an easier record to deny, but it might dig deeper and offers sonics that are just as captivating with repeated exposure.
Where Arular seemed like a cheap, international addition to the butt-shaking, sloganeering, beats-and-rhymes aesthetic of James Brown and Public Enemy, Kala is a more rattled beat miasma that evokes a less party-starting predecessor — Brit coulda-been-a-contender Tricky's 1995 trip-hop masterpiece Maxinquaye — and that comparison probably speaks to commercial limitations that M.I.A. seems unconcerned about.
The key track on Kala might be "$20." In title, it's a sequel to Arular's "10$," but where the earlier song is a whiplash dance track, "$20" is droning, swirling, and woozy. The dollar figure in the title refers to the cost of an AK-47 in Africa, a sum that "ain't shit to you." The lyrical snapshot of a dangerous, reckless, Third World landscape is familiar from Arular: "Price of living in a shanty town just seems very high/But we still like T.I./We still look fly/Dancing as we shooting up/And lootin' just to get by," M.I.A. chants. But where such moments came across as double-dutch rhymes in the middle of a war zone on Arular, here the scene is paired with music that could be a cousin to Southern hip-hop's screwed-and-chopped style. The clincher comes when M.I.A. gets to the vocal hook, borrowed from, of all places, pre-Nirvana Boston alt-rockers the Pixies: "With your feet in the air and your head on the ground ... where is my mind?" Before, the confusion of globalism was fodder for the artist's thrilling brass-ring grab. Here, she sounds discombobulated but the art she makes is just as intense as a result.
The Pixies (and T.I.) aren't the only Western pop references to collide with Third World landscapes on Kala. The opening anthem, "Bamboo Banga," laces Modern Lovers and Duran Duran references into a tale of a pack of kids banging on the side of a Western tourist's Hummer, while M.I.A. turns African place names into a form of doo-wop, chanting, "Somalia Angola Ghana Ghana Ghana." And on "Mango Pickle Down River," M.I.A. trades rhymes with kids from an Australian aboriginal community theater project while the music teases out subtle references to old-school hip-hop classics from MCs Lyte and Shan.
On "$20," M.I.A. boasts, "I put people on the map who never seen a map," and that personal connection is part of the strategy. In addition to appearances by the aboriginal Wilcannia Mob and rapper Afrikan Boy (on "Hussell"), Kala was recorded all over the globe. Essentially a dual citizen of these worlds, M.I.A. takes as her mission representing Third World sounds, people, and perspectives within the context of Western pop music. As such, the title "Bamboo Banga" could describe any M.I.A. song: "banga" being universal slang for "rockin' tune," and the "bamboo" modifier suggesting cheap, rickety, organic, foreign to Westerners. But, as on Arular, it's the violence of Third World life that M.I.A. obsesses over. Kala is an album on which the lone straight-up love song ("Jimmy") takes place — incidentally — on a genocide tour of the Congo.
All over both records, M.I.A. pokes at Western fears of Third World violence with provocative lyrics. The most novel on Kala is the Clash-sampling "Paper Planes," where M.I.A. performs a duet of sorts with the sound-effect-driven production of American beat maker Diplo: "All I wanna do is [gun shot, gun shot, gun shot] and a [trigger cock, cash register ring] take your money," she sings, mischievously. On "Boyz," she makes the relationship between poverty and violence explicit: "How many no-money boys are crazy?/How many boys are raw?/How many no-money boys are rowdy?/How many start a war?"
But on Kala, as on Arular, the message is never a simple — or decisive — one. The key exhortation comes on "World Town," where M.I.A. shouts: "Hands up!/Guns out!" Is she calling for her boyz to brandish firearms or dispose of them?
— Chris Herrington