M.I.A. - Kala
'M.I.A. is coming back with power, power!', the lady herself states on Kala's opener, the shot to the arm - and brain - that is Bamboo Banga. After one listen to the follow-up to 2005's Arular, itself a critically-adored and thrilling album, I dare anyone to disagree.
Although Kala is the natural successor to Arular, recalling its multitude of styles (dancehall, ragga, electro) and political conscience, as well as sharing the garish and attention-grabbing self-made artwork, this second offering raises M.I.A.'s game to such a level that she herself is unsure where else there is to go. Recent interviews - and a (unexpected?) pregnancy - have suggested the 30-year-old may be giving up the whole 'popstar' lark to act upon her obvious political leanings, and yet the truly visionary album she has birthed on Kala would make such an early retirement a crying shame.
Where to begin? You may have heard Bird Flu earlier this year when M.I.A. (real name: Maya Arulpragasam) unexpectedly released a low-fi video for the song on the Internet without consulting her record company. The bhangra-infused track, featuring a drum pattern recorded live with percussionists in Chennai, India, was just a taster of the dizzying array of sounds, samples and textures present on the full-length album. First single proper Boyz is pure carnival, where M.I.A. delivers one of her memorable rhymes (and, amusingly, rolls her eyes at a bad boy with the line 'Oooh gosh, it's the new warlord'), updating Gwen Stefani's sassy cheerleader-style chants for a tougher, yet still colourful, sound. If that doesn't hit your spot, how about the most original pop track of the year? Jimmy is baffling, a sample lifted from an Indian film creating a track that fuses Bollywood with pure glitterball disco, the outcome an essential track that will have everyone from hoody-clad chavs to gay clubbers open-mouthed in awe at its audacity.
Wow, you're thinking, this dude is making some bold claims here. True, the album might not sustain the pitch-perfect quality of Jimmy, although I doubt any modern album in existence could, but even when Kala falls short of flawlessness, it deserves points for trying. Take The Turn, for example, where M.I.A. switches her regular producer $witch for a bloke called 'Blaqstarr'; the resultant track is hardly a failure, rap traded for something akin to singing over atmospheric synths and a catchy drum loop, and yet this chilled endeavour suffers simply from being nestled in the middle of awesome songs. She does her political schtick on World Town, a rousing number that calls for 'Hands up, guns out!', but even better is XR2, ditching the agenda and replacing it with a madcap, club-baiting party track, where the sole concern is cruising along to a private rave while questing 'Where were you in '92?'.
Of course, while she has a hand in the production this time round, M.I.A. is only as good as $witch's bombastic production - imagine what Pop Art might sound like, and surely you wouldn't be far off? Diplo lends a hand with production duties on Hussel, a hard-raving track that also sees Afrikan Boy contribute a rap. This is the first time M.I.A. has shared a mic, and the decision to do so on Mango Pickle Down River might have been deemed unwise if the track weren't so fun! Joining forces with a group of young Aborigine boys, M.I.A. raps over the track's didgeridoo beat and is backed by the youths themselves rapping in their unfiltered dialects. What could have been unintentionally hilarious ends up being intentionally wacky and, in some way known only to M.I.A. and whatever music God she worships, slyly funky.
Away from the use of these left-of-centre sources, a couple of tracks feature elements lifted from more recognisable places. Only the most devout of Pixies purists could disagree with 20 Dollar, in which Where Is My Mind is referenced on the song's primary hook against a muscular electro backdrop which allows our narrator to inform us of 'the price of living in a shanty town'. This freedom to steal works even better on the album's natural conclusion, the stroke of genius that is Paper Planes. This playful track takes the Clash's Straight to Hell, copulates with it and gives birth to a beautiful - and FX-laiden - child. After this, the Timbaland-produced Come Around feels a bit tagged on but is nevertheless satisfyingly slick and, for all its hotshot stars, the possible highlight of the man's Shock Value album.
From Sri Lanka to London all the way to Timbaland. That is the story of M.I.A.'s rise from immigrant to freedom-fighting artist. One can only hope Kala is not the last chapter but, even if it is, this girl ain't shy and is sure to make her views known to the people in whatever medium she chooses next. If this and Arular is her musical legacy, she's achieved the kind of quality some artists strive for over nine albums and never achieve. Superb.