As adept at spewing brash polemics as she is at weaving sonic tapestries into dancehall gold, M.I.A has quickly gained a reputation as an artist who's just as likely to rip an interviewer's head off (as seen most recently in this little sit down with Pitchfork) as speak jauntily about her love affair with hip-hop or Bollywood. So if the Sri-Lankan born grime-hop star falls under that musical category generally known as, "I've heard of her but never heard her" for you, don't worry, it's probably because her reputation as the "enfant terrible" of the UK club scene generally has a habit of preceding her musical output.
Of course that's not to say that M.I.A's freshman album, Arular, wasn't a minor hit in its own right (130,000 copies and counting is certainly nothing to sneeze at.) But from her recent and highly publicized relationships with top 40 kings of the world, Interscope and Timbaland, it always seemed to me that Kala was going to be M.I.A's big push into an increasingly mainstream American club scene. But whether due to the fact that the US government wouldn't allow her to record it in the US or as a result of her own reservations about becoming the next Nelly Furtado, M.I.A opted to scrap the Timbo collab in favor of making an album which, as sure footed a follow up as it is, is anything but a launching pad to big time.
In fact most of the time, Kala is a sparse and aurally unfriendly retreat into M.I.A's subconscious political musings, and a continuation of the personal convictions first proclaimed on Arular. On "Bamboo Banga," the album's opener for instance, M.I.A snaps that she's "coming back with power" and twists an Indian sample from filmi composer Ilayaraja into a dirty beat courtesy of London DJ "Switch." It's an unflinching product of an intense personal vision, perhaps what you'd probably expect from M.I.A, but one that keeps the listener at arms length. Only on her disco infused cover of the Bollywood classic "Jimmy" does the album break from its jagged course to reach any kind of radio friendliness and even then it's ultimately undercut by a vocal delivery that hovers somewhere in a range between sweet and sour. But by the end it seems clear that if there is an unneveness to Kala, it's in keeping with M.I.A's outsider status and globe trotting musical tastes. Each song is presented as a riot of sounds as well as words, and there is determination amidst the clatter that has the power to provide the listener with a deeply edifying experience.
Review by: Chris Webster
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M.I.A - "Boyz"