September 6, 2007

Record Review: M.I.A.

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Maya Arulpagasm is the nice Sri Lankan girl from next door.
Releasing a series of short videos on, Spike Jonze creates a surprisingly intimate portrait of the biggest little MC in the world. For six episodes, the squeaky voiced Jonze follows Maya as she trots around London town, visits various friends, gets her hair done and simply radiates star power — watching the woman is absolutely fascinating. Whether she is slouching in the back of her luxury escort or dancing around in her bedroom with a giant teddy bear in hand, the lady knows how to command the attention of everyone around her.
When asked what her new album was really about, the unfazed Maya quickly responded, “Just being out there. Musically it’s still a loner. Like, there isn’t anything out there that I could put it next to — that’s in my world.”
Agreed. But, that “world” of hers is a hard one to pinpoint. After being denied a Visa to the U.S. — for still unclear reasons — (she originally planned to have the whole album produced by none other than Timbaland) she traveled to a variety of places whose cultures were deeply embedded with a distinct musicality and an interesting take on hip-hop conventions.
This fortunate turn of events enabled her to pick up a range of producers and musicians who each brought their own flavors to the mix. The result is an undeniably unique mish-mash of styles and motifs, ranging from earthy, tribal, non-western beats, to irresistible, boisterous, danceable, electro-dub hip-hop.
M.I.A’s matter of fact, yet endearing confidence comes out in full blast as Kala rolls its first measures. “Bamboo Banger” starts off the album with a deep, punctuating beat that eventually kicks into a simplistic drum machine hook.
The real fun comes when the chants of a Bollywood chorus and the sporadic sounds of a racecar speeding by accent the song. All the while, M.I.A proclaims that she is “coming back wit’ powa, POWA.” That she is.
This energy bursts out as “Bird Flu” flashes with a mind-blowing heterophony of driving drum circle percussive tones peppered with noises ranging from a rooster crowing to children chanting.
Without taking a breath, the album dives into its first single “Boyz.” In a sort of digitized re-vamp of “Bird Flu,” the cockney Sri Lankan busts out a female empowering, radio-playable track that just makes you want to move.
The album’s lowest point comes in the form of the failed Euro-dance hit that is “Jimmy.” The track uses cookie cutter beats, disco sound samples and a string line that comes straight out of a trashy nightclub — along with all the cheap cologne and greasiness.
Similarly, the album’s final track, “Come Around,” produced by the beat machine Timbaland, manages to weigh Maya down with a repetitive and uninteresting hook that is only trumped by Timba’s uninventive rhyme scheme. Without a doubt, the musical inventiveness and exploration of Kala holds much more weight than these weak spots.
The stellar, short performance of Afrika Boy on “Hussel” is a revelation. His unique cadences and appealing intonation accompany a creative, politically charged verse that shows potential for a new — African — king of the mic.
Equally impressive is the didgeridoo filled track “Mango Pickle Down River;” a playful look into Outback-rap by M.I.A and the Wilicania Mob — a group of three Australian pre-teens that might be the freshest twelve-year-olds since Kriss Kross.
The stand out cut of the bunch is the outstandingly clever “Paper Planes.” A satirical, quasi-stoner-gangster musical frame of mind pasted on top of an absolutely infectious melody, “Planes” is ironic gold.
The verses are swarming with the formulaic elements of a thug MC, from proclamations that she “fly like paper, get high like planes” rolls with weed, bombs, poison and has “more records than the KGB.”
Oh! And don’t forget that the chorus of the song consists of four gunshots and a cash register opening. M.I.A. seems to exploit those certain pre-conceptions that might have resulted in that denied Visa. It’s this defiant attitude that makes M.I.A. so appealing. She certainly won’t shoot you nor “take yo’ money,” but she sure knows how to play the part damn well.
While in a London flat, Jonze focuses the camera on a laptop — the image of a painfully thin young African boy comes onto screen. After discussing the lack of the “third world” experience in the usually urban-based hip-hop of the present day, she perfectly states, “Like, this kid knows 50 Cent, but 50 Cent doesn’t know this kid.” And with that, M.I.A reveals the unspoken gap in our western frame of musical reference. Her awareness of global musical style and her ability to universalize those unknown gems of the world is helping to make a small dent in that ignorance. It’s the beginning of a reverse globalization of culture, and M.I.A is helping us to digest it with her bombastic beats and overpowering flow.