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"I put people on the map who ain't seen a map."
on August 20, 2007
M.I.A.'s (Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) amazing debut album, Arular, garnered many dedicated fans. One of them just happened to be mega-producer Timbaland. He was so enthusiastic, in fact, that he wanted to work with her for her sophomore release. Of course Maya obliged and she even cried tears of happiness. But before she could begin collaborating with him, a little--okay, a big--obstacle came up; the Sri Lankan was not allowed to enter the United States for ten months due to visa troubles. Some artists would just quit right then and there, but that's not how she operates. M.I.A. figured that if she couldn't come into the US, then she would go and create her art everywhere else on the globe. And that's what she did. Kala was recorded in many locations, including India, London, Australia, Africa and Trinidad.
Maya's first album, named after her father, was raw and unapologetically fierce. M.I.A. herself admitted the album was rather "masculine." However, Kala is, among other things, softer and more personal. It's only right that she named it after her mother. Maya's father doesn't think mom deserves the privilege. (Supposedly, the two are very competitive). But I would have to disagree with Papa Arulpragasam. When he left his family to become a freedom fighter, his jobless wife had to support her children and provide for them. Not only is she deserving of the title for respect's sake, but also because her struggle is represented in many of the songs. In tracks like "$20," Maya sounds less like the rambunctious girl we met on her debut and more like a tired and slightly bitter mother who has seen the cruelty of the world, trying to find hope and meaning somewhere. But still... there's strength! Power. (In the absolute best way possible, of course).
The album opens perfectly with the minimalist, shuffling mid-tempo beat of "Bamboo Banga." About two minutes into the song, the beat picks up and grows in complexity and Maya announces triumphantly that she is coming back with "powah powah!" (Couldn't have said it better myself). Up next is the energetic "Bird Flu," complete with the chanting of little village girls, booming tribal drums and the "ba-gok!" of chickens. "Boyz" is a fun and quirky summer jam that sounds straight out of a street parade. The track is laced with a collage of drums, an infectious "how many" vocal sample and whistling. "Jimmy" is a slightly reworked/re-written version of a Bollywood song Maya used to sing at parties for money as a child. The disco track is thoroughly entertaining with addictive strings and some electronic beeps added for a modern touch. While it is very different from anything M.I.A. has created before, it is a very welcome addition to the album for me. "Hussel" is the first song on here that takes on the serious tone I mentioned earlier. Over the ominous, synth-heavy production, which sounds straight out of a rainforest, Maya raps about the hustle and grind of raising money to help family and friends in need. Guest artist Afrikan Boy adds a nice universal touch. Speaking of guest artists, "Mango Pickle Down River" has a group of Aboriginal kids, the Wilcannia Mob, rapping with her. They rap about their adventures together over a buzzing, bumbling track. "$20" is the epitome of the tone I mentioned in the second paragraph. It is also probably Kala's most introspective track. Maya, sounding almost defeated, spits out random deep thoughts on her mind. "World Town" is by far the track that best resembles Arular musically. Still, the lyrics fit the album's theme. "The Turn," like many of the other tracks, finds Maya... singing. She actually sounds beautiful and very unique. The lyrics say it all: "Don't bother me with your mess/ I'm trying to do my best/ Get my head up out the stress/ When the money turns the world/ Your lovin' turns to less." The meandering groove is just amazing. "XR2," which she posted on her MySpace earlier this year, is a hyperactive, percolating club track with a catchy sped-up horn sample. Her vocal delivery is almost like her own version of the Ying Yang Twins' "Whisper Song." (Except... much better). "Paper Planes" has already become a fan favorite, and rightfully so. It samples The Clash's "Straight To Hell," it's an extremely catchy song that discreetly speaks on her frustration about the visa situation, the chorus mixes roaring gunshots and cash register "cha-chings!" and it's produced by ex-boyfriend, Diplo. What's not to love? The closing track, "Come Around," is the only one produced by Timbaland. While many of Maya's fans resent the song (while others pretend it doesn't exist), I happen to love it. Sure, it's a little more mainstream than the other stuff, but it's fun, bouncy and her swagger is irresistible. It's a good way too end the album, in my opinion.
Kala is a triumph. M.I.A. was faced with terrible misfortune, but rather than sitting around defeated, she traveled around the world, interacting with the people and recording a diverse, creative and just plain amazing album. This is by far one of--if not the--best CDs I've heard all year. I highly recommend.