If you believe that the dulcet notes of Joss Stone or the soul of Amy Winehouse are the only powerful sounds the U.K. has produced in recent years then you obviously haven’t heard of M.I.A.. The pint-sized singer is all at once rapper, cultural ambassador, and social commentator.
Her lyrical style is deceptively simple, veering into the territory of schoolyard chant and nursery rhyme featuring a sobering yet ironic edge of social realism. This combined with her experimental nature concerning beats and instrumentation has procured a dedicated fan base for the Sri Lankan native. Following the same vein as her critically acclaimed 2005 debut Arular, M.I.A. continues her trademark musical eclecticism with sounds such as gunfire and didgeridoos while retaining her sharp and globally conscious lyrics with Kala.
The album opener, “Bamboo Banga,” is an assertive declaration of M.I.A.’s return to the musical stage with “power power.” “Bird Flu” is an intriguing follow-up featuring chanting village children and the clucking of chicken strewn throughout; wherein she bemoans mainstream sensibilities that seek to both censor and commercialize her art.
“Boyz,” one of the most enjoyable tracks for a mainstream audience, is a thumping riot, which transports the listener to the wild dancing of a Caribbean street parade. The track is both a come-on and a scathing mockery for the boys she entices as she calls, “How many no money boys are crazy? / How many boys are raw? / How many no money boys are rowdy? / How many start a war?”
The disco sound of “Jimmy” is a quick transition from the Jamaican dancehall beats of “Boyz” as the song is actually a cover of an Indian song from Bollywood movie Disco Dancer. In fact, it may be the only actual song on the album in a traditional sense with tame verses like “You told me that you’re busy / Your loving makes me crazy / I know you can hear me / So tell me that you want me.”
“Hussel,” featuring Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy, revolves around the daily struggles of those around the world who do whatever they need to survive. “Mango Pickle Down River” is led along by the mellow pulse of a didgeridoo and features the rapping talents of prepubescent Aboriginal rap group The Wilcannia Mob.
“20 Dollars” is a wild synth driven track that thunders with the shattering cracks of gunshots, which explores the dichotomy of materialism and abject poverty that fills the world. She even prophesies that the utter shallowness of it all will lead us to ask, “Where is my mind?”
“World Town” is another dance friendly, beat driven track that transitions into the most powerful track on the album “Paper Planes.” The song not only samples The Clashes’ “Straight to Hell,” but is symbolic of government corruption at its worst with just two different sound effects between lyrics: gunshots followed by a cash register ringing.
The album ends with the Timbaland produced track “Come Around;” a track that features an uninteresting and repetitive beat that reeks of Timabland’s creative devices. This is precisely why it doesn’t mesh with M.I.A.’s international pastiche.
Granted Kala is not a commercial album for everyone, nor is M.I.A. a commercial artist. She defies categorization and, rare in these times of musical sterility, is unafraid to take musical risks. As she draws from the musical founts of various nations she weaves their hopes and sorrows and unique cultural identities within her uncompromising artistic style. For those with an open mind and eclectic musical palette then, given the chance, Kala will prove to be one of the best albums one can buy this year.