By Steve Weinstein
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"It's just been a long time since I've been able to get into the U.S.," says M.I.A., on the phone from the London offices of XL, her British label. "I have an apartment in Brooklyn. It'd be nice to go there."
Lately, that's been a problem for Maya Arulpragasam. Last year, after the London-born singer had spent over a year traveling the world to promote her widely praised debut album, 2005's Arular, U.S. customs officials refused her entry here. Since then, she's been at the mercy of the American government. This past May, visa issues forced her to cancel a planned appearance at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in Washington state. And though she'd long been announced as a performer at the Voice-sponsored Siren Festival in Coney Island on July 21, at the time of our interview, those issues hadn't been entirely resolved. "It's kind of like I haven't been deniedit's just that nobody knows what's going on, so we have to wait until the paperwork gets done, basically," she says. "I hope I can make it to the festival. I kind of want to make it home. I'm still living like a student, you know?"
Thankfully, her passage was ultimately granted, and the show will go on. But home has always been a nebulous concept for M.I.A., who split her childhood between Sri Lanka and England. Arular showed the influence of different indigenous mutations of pop musicfrom America and England and India and Brazil and Jamaica and Puerto Ricoartfully blended into a digitally globalized form of homespun dance-pop. Reportedly named after her father's Tamil Tiger nom de guerre, the album mixed oblique lyrical references to guerrilla warfare with dance- floor exhortations and text-message chatter; M.I.A. frequently performed onstage in front of Day-Glo cave-paintings of tanks and bombs.
Still, she downplays any speculation that her visa problems might have some connection with the personally political nature of her lyrics: "Generally, there's just some bands over here going through it. Like, I think the Klaxons are in the same boat." Still, it's not hard to find correlations between the country's terror paranoia and the customs problems of an artist who so freely plays on the signifiers of terrorism.
Due in August, KalaM.I.A.'s sophomore album, out on Interscope in the U.S.carries evidence of her travel issues. Since she couldn't count on consistent access to her Brooklyn home, she recorded all over the world: in America, in Trinidad, in India, in Jamaica. Often, she'd tinker with the same song in all those places, as with "Boyz," the first single. "I recorded the drums in India, then I had the files in Trinidad," she remembers. "We put it together and did the vocals in Trinidad, and then we did some extra work on it in Brooklyn, and then we went back to India and did some extra-extra work. So each song has layers and layers."
Consequently, a song like "Boyz" takes on aspects of every country involved in its creation. "It fell into, like, 'OK, we're going to make soca that's not really soca,' " she says. "And in Trinidad, I was trying to make a song that wasn't very soca-ish, but I was in a soca environment with soca producers who were having a lot of soca stuff going on. I wasn't thinking about American clubs at the time, about what sort of stuff they were listening to, what kids in Paris were listening to. I was just there in the moment in Trinidad. It had the ups and downs: the basic chorus, soca for the tempo, and you just fuck around with that. You create a new way to feel music."
The result is an off-kilter shitstorm of furious drums and party-noise whistles, a sound fuller and more chaotic than anything on Arularthe tension resulting from that chaos never quite finds release. It's a dance song, but a curiously unrelenting dance song, and most of Kala mirrors that dense ferocity. "Hussel" layers bird whistles, air-raid sirens, and farting tuba bass over its drums, while "XR2" relies on riotous Baltimore-club horn stabs. It's heavy stuff.
M.I.A. co-produced every song on this record, working with producers like the U.K. remix specialist Switch and her ex-boyfriend, the Philadelphia DJ Diplo. "Because I went off and recorded it myself, I had more control over it," she says. "I had the ability to fuck around with it more." Though she recorded tracks with a number of big-name American pop and rap names, like Bangladesh and Three 6 Mafia, she left nearly all those results off the album, concentrating instead on the tracks she made while in semi-exile.
Though the Timbaland collaboration "Come Around" will be included on Kala's American release as a bonus song, the only guest vocals on the album proper come from Afrikan Boy (a Nigerian immigrant rapper living in London) and the Wilcanna Mob (a group of prepubescent aboriginal Australian rappers).
"At one point, when Interscope played 'Boyz,' will.i.am and Pharrell and Timbaland were all in one room, and I was just coming from India, working in a little studio with cockroaches and little kids using my blank CDs as Frisbees and shit," she remembers. "And then I sat in a million-pound studio with T.I. and Britney next-door. They were playing my stuff, and I felt like I've done this to the point where I can bring it to Interscope. And now they can hear what little kids in Australia sound like, which they're not going to actively go out and seek because everyone's in their comfort zone. And at the same time, I was like, 'If I can already do that, what's the point of working with big-name producers?' "
That's an odd statement from an artist so openly infatuated with American pop music, but Kala is more an interrogation than an imitation. On "Hussel," a sort of answer song to Rick Ross's Southern-rap hit "Hustlin'," she asks, "Why's everybody got hustle on their mind?"
"When I was in Liberia, you get into the huts, and little kids are listening to that shit," she says. "And it's cute to see them dancing to it, like, 'Wow, yeah, the 'Hustlin' song, that's so cool!' And then it's like, 'Actually, it's not fucking cool.' You have to give them something else as well. If it's about working or if you're talking about money, then I don't think that 99 percent of music should stress that. So at the time, I was just asking somebody that question. I don't want to live like that."
Now that she's made a new album that fiercely challenges American pop, M.I.A. is faced with the interesting challenge of bringing it to America. If Kala is the direct result of her temporary exile, we may never get to hear another album like it again, since she plans on settling in Brooklyn as permanently as she can. "My dream is always to get a place and stay there and just do it," she says. "I would love to wake up every day in the same bed."
M.I.A. performs at the Siren Festival(sponsored by theVoice) July 21, villagevoice.com/siren