One of the most talked-about debut albums of the decade, Arular emerges in retrospect as a masterful act of self-promotion, one that showcases M.I.A.’s grasp of and shrewd ability to exploit a crucial aspect of modern hip-hop culture. Arular is an album that works as a triumph of pure escapism; M.I.A. opened with the boast, “I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang bang bang,” and then spent the following 40-odd minutes backing it up. As a creative, often brilliant composite of pop, electronic, and dance music, the album certainly justified the magnitude of the hype it received online for the better part of two years.
Perhaps more interestingly, M.I.A. allowed aspects of her personal history and Arular’s roundabout origins to precede the music itself. Loading her lyrics with forceful imagery straight out of Guns & Ammo and, hell, choosing the moniker M.I.A., she baited a reading of the album as something far more substantial: a work of deeply-rooted political protest. And, by and large, writers took that bait, either casually or willfully overlooking the fact that the geopolitical imagery was little more than an attention-grabbing gimmick, never resolving into any kind of coherent thesis or even a clear point of view about world politics. Arular’s gender politics remain a rich source of critical depth, but the fact that anyone thought of “Galang” as having much of anything to do with a Vietnamese POW camp speaks volumes about the unwillingness of many writers to challenge what’s in a press kit. But all credit to M.I.A. for getting away with this; again, as self-promotion, it’s a remarkable feat, and one that only makes her that much more compelling as an artist in control of what she’s doing.
For her follow-up, Kala (named after her mother, whereas her debut was named for her father, a militia group leader in Sri Lanka), she does much of the same thing. The backstory this time out involves her inability to get a visa that would allow her back into the U.S. to record the album or to work with many of the collaborators she had lined up for the project, resulting in a recording process that literally spans the globe. She’s also been lashing out at critics, most notably in a recent interview with Pitchfork, who were quick to discredit the role she played on Arular, quite rightly taking them to task for their inherent sexism and paternalistic racism in implying that she didn’t—or that a woman from the third-world couldn’t—have a creative voice of her own. The crucial difference with Kala, however, is that this backstory actually works with the music itself in that she’s incorporated her political imagery into more cogent, explicitly pointed accusations and has drawn directly from her globetrotting experiences in creating her sonic palette. In doing so, M.I.A., undoubtedly the truest “outsider” to emerge on the pop landscape in ages, has crafted an album that, in its best moments, positions her as an impassioned advocate for the disenfranchised.
Consider that the album rarely stoops to simple posturing: rapping about the ongoing rape of Africa on the standout “Hussel,” M.I.A. brings in Nigerian MC Afrikan Boy, who flaunts his status as an illegal immigrant. On “Mango Pickle Down River,” a group of Australian kids (credited as The Wilcannia Mob) raps not-that-badly over a track that takes its bassline from a looped didgeridoo. It’s telling that her collaboration with Timbaland, “Come Around,” is treated as a bonus track rather than part of the album proper. Instead, for much of the album, she actively seeks out the people to whom she’s trying to give a voice (and Lord knows Tims, of all people, doesn’t need the exposure at this point), and that makes Kala a far more fully-realized and informed political statement.
Rather than just toss out references to the PLO because it fits into a simple rhyme scheme, she makes declarative statements that ring with palpable feelings of anger and cynicism. The most striking of these comes on “$20,” when she sneers, “I put people on the map/That never seen a map,” a line loaded with both sociological freight and with a hip-hop artist’s knack for self-mythologizing. Second single “Jimmy” takes to task the brand of Facebook activism so common among her primary U.S. demo, passing off the couplet, “Take me on a genocide tour/Take me on a trip to Darfur,” like it’s the most romantic thing someone could ever say, a point driven home by the glorious Bollywood disco sample that swirls around the song. Even more jarring and, ultimately, more effective is the audacious manner in which she co-opts the chorus of “Rump Shaker” for “Paper Planes,” replacing its hook with the sounds of gunfire and a cash register. Again, however scattershot her political images were on Arular, M.I.A. makes it clear throughout Kala that she’s developed a perspective and an artistic voice that demands attention.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that Kala rarely works where its predecessor did: With the notable exception of “Jimmy” (which even risks being divisive because M.I.A. actually sings it in the mannered style of its origin), the hooks here simply aren’t as immediate or as catchy, and the weight of the material seems to have dragged down much of the album’s energy. The mid-’90s rave-up of “XR2,” which has been tweaked for the better since its original leaked form, is the closest the album comes to another “Sunshowers” or “Bucky Done Gun,” but it’s marred by having M.I.A.’s vocals completely smothered too low in the mix. And even by the standards of the wondrously minimalist “Galang,” first single “Boyz” just barely qualifies as a song and is undone as a potential club-banger by playing too loose with its rhythmic shifts. The beats on “$20,” “World Town,” and “The Turn” are simply static and uninspired, no matter how diverse their sources may be.
Kala loses some of the keen pop sensibility that still makes Arular a great listen. While that’s unfortunate, and renders Kala somewhat less satisfying an album overall, it’s what M.I.A. has gained on this album that’s sure to be of greater long-term significance. Now armed with a clear-eyed, informed, and important point of view and the artistic cachet to make that perspective known, the M.I.A. captured on Kala seems aware of the potential of pop and hip-hop music to empower those who have systematically been denied a voice. But to capitalize on that power, M.I.A. will need beats that actually make people want to get up and move.