If you stare at this thing for long enough, your brain will melt
It’s not like there’s ever been a dearth of information on M.I.A. She’s internet-famous, which means that about a million blogs fall all over any song she might decide to post on her MySpace page, and she gets more media scrutiny than plenty of artists who have sold exponentially more records than she has. Still, there’s something mysterious about Kala, her new album. Over the past few months, we’ve only heard bits and pieces of the record, whichever songs she’d decided to leak out; those bits are all we’ve been allowed to hear of her. She has an apartment in Brooklyn, but American customs officials have denied her admission to the country over and over in the past couple of years, so she’s only sporadically been able to spend any time here, and she’s had to cancel a few high-profile shows over the past few months. To hear her tell it, the way Kala sounds is, among other things, a result of that near-permanent displacement. She recorded in America and India and Jamaica and Trinidad and I don’t even know where all else, and the album ends up sounding totally placeless, like it could’ve bubbled up from anywhere on Earth. She recorded songs with Timbaland and Bangladesh and Three 6 Mafia, but those tracks didn’t make the album’s final cut, though the Timbaland collab “Come Around” is apparently going to be a bonus track on the US edition of the album. The only guest-vocals on the final version of the record come from Afrikan Boy, a Nigerian immigrant rapper living in London, and the Wilcanna Mob, a group of aboriginal Australian kiddie-rappers. M.I.A. is all set to perform at the Voice-sponsored Siren Festival next month, and it looks to be her first American show in a minute. Earlier this morning, I interviewed her on the phone for a print-edition article that’s set to run before the festival, and yesterday I went to her label’s offices to hear the album’s final version. Hearing music at label offices is always a sort of weird and awkward experience: you show up, the publicist leaves you in a room with the CD, and you frantically scribble notes and do your best to remember how the thing sounds long enough to write about it. They do that to eliminate any chance of writers leaking their albums to the internet, of course, but the whole process probably inevitably colors the experience of hearing the album and probably results in harsher reviews more often than not. But the hour or so that I spent with Kala yesterday was a fucking blast; I can’t wait to hear this thing again.
The deafening press buzz surrounding Arular, her first album, focused largely on her hybridized background: a gorgeous Sri Lankan native with an American DJ boyfriend living in London making a pop record that leaned hard on stylized wartime-Islamist imagery that might’ve had something to do with her father’s ties to the Tamil Tigers. None of that had a whole lot to do with what I liked about the album, though, since none of it particularly registered when I was actually listening to the thing. Musically, it stuck to bedroom-pop conventions, sounding light and airy and celebratory. She and her producers stole there hooks from everywhere and blurred them together into a bright, nonsensical party-up gumbo. In some ways, she became a sort of personification of her producer/boyfriend Diplo’s polyglot club-rat aesthetic; she melted all the stuff in his record crates into a more cohesive whole and wrote hooks that could compete with those of all the Southern rappers and dancehall growlers and Bollywood princesses and synthpop crooners who might’ve influenced her. In fact, the main things that set her apart from grime and dancehall and bhagra and whatever else were her voice and her delivery, an arch deadpan that connected her to the spidery British postpunk of the Slits and Delta 5. (I asked her today if she listens to that stuff, and she said that she didn’t, but I’m still not entirely sure I believe her. In any case, she came up in part because of an Elastica association, so some of that stuff has probably bled its way into her music, intentionally or not.) Her delivery hasn’t changed much on Kala, but at least on first listen it was virtually impossible to ignore the fractured and dislocated process of the album’s creation when the album itself was playing. Part of that is in the sounds themselves. She tinkered with many of the different tracks in all the different countries where she recorded, and she incorporated bits of instrumentation from all those different places, so “Boyz,” for instance, layers the drums she recorded in India into soca patterns that she figured out in Trinidad or Jamaica. More importantly, though, the album brims with a sort of tension that wasn’t really there on Arular. A track like “Boyz” builds up a frantic tempo but never quite lets its clenched fury into relent into anything resembling release. Rather than the breezy, blippy track-construction of the last album, she piles as much as possible into every song, making for some disorientingly heavy tracks. This is party music, but it’s apocalyptic party music.
M.I.A. makes a lot of counterintuitive musical gambles on Kala, not the least of which is her total exclusion of all the big-name pop producers with whom she recorded tracks. A few of the tracks on the album, for instance, carry heavy echoes of Baltimore club music, but “The Turn,” the one track she actually recorded with the Baltimore club producer Blaqstarr, isn’t one of them. “The Turn” has a few drum-sounds and chant-noises that are identifiable Blaqstarr, but it’s a slow, ghostly ballad, M.I.A. singing plaintively over rippling bongos and booming syncopation. The Australian kids on “Mango Pickle Down River” sound like cartoon aliens, blurping and gulping over didgereedoos and mouth-clicks. On “Paper Planes,” she sweetly sings about taking your money over fizzy summertime guitars and spare D4L snaps. The whole thing makes for a way more frantic and paranoid listening experience than Arular, but it’s just as fun and celebratory in its own ways. Look: all I have to go on here is the initial excitement of the first listen, and maybe that’ll evaporate when I get another chance to sit down and listen to the thing again. That first impression, though, says that Kala is a serious contender for album of the year.
Voice review: Robert Christgau on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Simon Reynolds on M.I.A.’s Arular
Voice review: Douglas Wolk on M.I.A. and Diplo’s Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1