(XL/Interscope; 2007)

By Andre Perry | 31 August 2007

Unlike Paul Simon on Graceland (1986), M.I.A. is not a white star bringing new sounds to the Western Front, but a star, a celebrity of color. Kala, while flexing some familiar hip-hop techniques, also fixates on the sounds of India, Africa, and Aboriginal Australia, defying tradition as it picks up on “non-required” musical threads and offers them to a fresh audience. As an artistic statement, the album re-envisions how Western culture transfuses ethnic trends into its blood, not so much about challenging questions of authenticity—after all, Graceland was done in earnest—as much as it is asserting the importance of perspective.

Some white folks might take for granted what it’s like for non-white people to have the canon of any given art form shoved down their throats, especially when it’s their own art that is being considered by the white cultural guard. To wit, picture Alan Lomax (of the 1930s American Folkways project) cruising through the nation’s back roads handpicking his favorite acts to represent black American music. While he was well-intentioned, who is Lomax to have the dominant word on what constitutes the best black music of a certain time period? Listen back to the Rolling Stones or any British Invasion act making it big on black music while their forerunners (Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters) linger in the shadows. Lifting elements of or exposing existing styles has always been an essential part of creating new music, but to have M.I.A. — someone who not only hears a hot beat but feels in that beat a sense of where she comes from—ripping the sounds of the underrepresented instead of say, Damon Albarn, is quite liberating.

The opener “Bamboo Banger” wraps a chorus of sampled East Indian vocals around a deep-ass kick drum thump. It’s hip-hop world music for sweaty clubs, yet M.I.A’s first lyrics are lifted from the Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner.” More than a nod to Jonathan Richman’s rock gem, the genre reference is crucial, an acknowledgment of rock n’ roll’s tense history of white rockers—Elvis, yo—swiping black sounds and making them popular for the young girls and boys. Her sampling of the Clash’s rocksteady guitar riff from “Straight To Hell” on “Paper Planes” (mashed up against a flurry of gun shots and five-fingered cash registers) reads the same way to me: not only is it an aesthetic appreciation of a great song but a note on punk’s debt to reggae music. She drops the trifecta on “Come Around” with a slight re-working of the “heat goes on” line from Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches,” a song (like the album it from which it comes) insanely steeped in appropriated African rhythms and vocal phrasings.

M.I.A.’s vocal approach throughout Kala suggests, to me, a future for hip-hop where lyricism plays a different role in both its delivery and content. Stylistically, the focus is not on overtly-complex rhyme slaying nor is it in the vein of simple party slogans. Instead M.I.A., as already evidenced on Arular (2005), often settles into phrases, rapping and mumbling them over and over until the repetition becomes hypnotism. Rather than posit lyrics as separate from beat, she melds them together, and unpacking her words reveals a keen sense of third-world conceit in relation to the demographic bound to eat this album up. On “$20” she breaks away from the Western urban drama that rap songs have familiarized to the point of parody, instead relating a scene that could apply to numerous at-risk regions in Africa: "Price of living in a shanty town just seem to be high / We still look fly, We still like T.I / Dancing as we shooting up / And lootin’ just to get by." The T.I. reference should be heard loud and clear, a reminder that the images portrayed in popular hip-hop push well beyond North America’s borders.

As for the beats, they are as insane as anything we’ve heard in 2007; although there are a couple of failed tracks—like the tediously slow “The Turn”—most of this stuff is groundbreaking: the atonal and percussive assault that is “Bird Flu,” the tribal beat vs. techno synthesizer stabs that are peppered throughout “Hussel,” the dub reworking of New Order’s “Blue Monday” on “$20,” and those digital horns of “XR2” that, in a sense, re-imagine the Bollywood big beat of “Bucky Done Done” from Arular. Halfway through this record it becomes apparent that while some laptop fiends are mashing up songs for gimmick-hungry dance-floor hipsters, M.I.A. and her co-producers (Switch, Diplo, and Blaqstar) are rethinking genres.

The funny thing about M.I.A., whose music is being made for more than the G8’s ears, is that much of her popularity has been with indie culture and deep hip-hop heads. I’d like to see some reports from around the world to flesh out the reactions—which have been largely positive in the press (excepting the first review on this site and interestingly, the thrashing in black culture magazine Vibe)—we’ve seen so far, to digest the album from some different perspectives. After all, the extensive genre remixing on Kala isn’t just an impassioned attempt to expose her white audience to sounds from non-white sources, it’s also a love song, showing in its loud and often abrasive way what happens when cultures clash and inevitably get between the sheets.