Review #6: Kala by M.I.A.
Kala - M.I.A.
Globalization mouthpiece Thomas Friedman’s fond of declaring the world flat. It’s a recent leveling that’s been achieved, he claims, by the endless possibilities of technology and globalization. But Friedman’s conclusion seems reductive for the sake of a unified theory, and, perhaps most damaging to his ideas, he hasn’t even taken M.I.A.’s startling new album Kala into account.
Because Kala is world music in the truest sense of the term, one of the most literal products of globalization I’ve ever heard. From the globetrotting efforts of Maya Arulpragasam to the international addresses of her producers and collaborators to the flawless synthesis of sounds to the worldwide marketing effort and tour (not to mention the cheap overseas manufacturing of the CD itself), the album is a fearless border-crusher. It’s twelve tracks better traveled than Carmen Sandiego and a passport so punished its stamped papers are crumbling.
But Tom Friedman, take note, flat is the one thing that Kala most certainly isn’t. It’s a seismogram of spikes and peaks, the inexhaustible bounce of a ricocheting pinball. It takes cues and alludes to influences from all over, but rather than getting mashed into a melting pot, every feature gets duly feted. It time-travels back to 1982 Bollywood to update “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” into cyberdisco lovejam “Jimmy” and it stirs old Modern Lovers, Clash and Pixies classics into sleek new hybrids. It also flashes forward to invent a genre all its own, some musical utopia where robopop, baile funk, ragga and tribal rhythms can coexist in pop-scored harmony.
While the sounds mesh seamlessly, the subjects aren’t quite as agreeable. M.I.A. isn’t as militant as on her debut Arular, but she’s still fiercely engaging the world. When she lists a travelogue of “Somalia, Angola, Ghana (Ghana Ghana), India, Sri Lanka, Burma,” it’s as much a call-to-arms as a roll call. She wants to be a missionary in reverse, preaching the gospel of the third-world to the colonizers. When she complains, “Do you know the cost of AKs in Africa/ Twenty dollars don’t mean shit to you, but that’s how much they are,” it’s striking how strongly the rhetoric hits. It also comes off a lot more organically than, say, an awful Gwyneth Paltrow ad or wearing a red shirt from the Gap.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t feel problematic at times. On “$20,” she boasts, “I put people on the map that ain’t never seen a map.” That may indeed be true, with guest spots by unknown Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy and a group of Aboriginal kids called the Wilcannia Mob, but it can come off as presumptuous too. Throughout, M.I.A. projects herself among the poor and downtrodden, but the unspoken reality is that she’s an emerging and well-paid star on a major label. She’s still at a pretty sizable remove from the grime as “Jimmy” most honestly confirms. There, she asks her suitor to “take [her] on a genocide tour,” which is at once a well-meaning witnessing and an unavoidable exploitation.
Among the other slight quibbles I have with the work are the adjacent placement of “Hussel” and the didgeridoo-laced “Mango Pickle Down River.” Afrikan Boy and the Wilcannia Mob, respectively, both contribute fresh and original turns that enliven the album, while speaking directly to its themes. But pairing them together gives Kala’s center a strange heft, making the flow of the guest-free songs feel somewhat imbalanced. The only other guest comes at the very end, on the bonus track “Come Around,” and he’s the one conspicuously unfortunate presence. I’m obviously talking about Timbaland, whose production on the closer is exciting enough but still feels peskily phoned-in. Of course, that’s not as objectionable as his limp come-on rap, which bombs as per usual. Most offensively of all, it robs the outspoken M.I.A. of getting the last word on her own album. In my Winamped version of the playlist, the superior “Hit That” replaces “Come Around” as the bonus, which is what that substitution actually sounds like.
Nonetheless, those are minor drawbacks in what still reigns as a revolutionary effort. Kala ultimately is an inexhaustible world of possibilities, it’s a clash of cultures in a dialectic dreamscape. It’s knowledgeable and funky and incisive and insightful, the very antithesis of a flattened landscape. It’s a new crest in M.I.A.’s already towering trajectory and a new high for up-and-comers to strive for. Most importantly, it marks a sharp and serious uptick in the quality of music in 2007. 8.9/10
* MP3: "Bird Flu" - M.I.A. from Kala [Buy it]
* MP3: "Hit That" - M.I.A.