The thrilling, chaotic sound of everything hitting at once
The first words on Kala are stolen from Jonathan Richman. "Road runner, road runner," moans Maya Arulpragasam, "Going 50 miles per hour/ with the radio on." Just as notable as that reference is what follows it: the depth-charge boom of baile funk bass, the whoosh of an airplane and a ten-second snippet from a Bollywood soundtrack. And so it is with Kala, a record that brazenly, joyously mixes firebombs, fierce rhythms and breathless flirtation.
In the wake of adulation that greeted her 2005 debut Arular (Missy Elliott and Timbaland were among the more vocal fans) it seemed likely that MIA would start looking for ways to streamline and commercialize her chaotic sound, making it more immediate and more broadly palatable. So it's a shock, then, that Kala is even more stubborn than its predecessor — it's bigger and brasher and nervier, an expanding and a deepening of Arular's snatch-n-stitch aesthetic. "Hussel" lays hip-hop slang — "hustle, hustle, hustle/ grind, grind, grind" — over thumping jungle rhythms. "The Turn" sprinkles synths like starlight across clattering bongos. The songs are recklessly dismantled, most of them little more than a skeleton of rhythm and a ghost of melody.
MIA's cleverest maneuver is her ability to address politics without hectoring. She thrives on suggestion and implication, playing with signs and signifiers but refusing to draw the dotted line between. Her first video was festooned with images of bombs and bright pink cartoon tigers, at once recognizing and infantilizing her father's association with the terrorist group Tamil Tigers. Was she supporting them? Was she mocking them? She never said, just sketched and displayed — neon outlines in a semiotics coloring book. On Kala she's even craftier: the bustling "Boyz" opens with MIA lustily chanting "How many boyz there?/ boyz there?" over and over, a randy come-on phrased as a hopeful question. But then halfway through, the message switches: "How many (not many) boyz are crazy?/ How many boyz are raw?/ How many (not many) boyz are crazy?/ How many start a war?" She delivers the couplet in the same bounding cadence as the rest of the song so it's easy let it slip right past — and that's what makes it so sinister. Boys, it seems, are equally capable of both affection and annihilation. The only thing holding back the firestorm is the thin membrane of choice.
This would all be pure academia if MIA didn't turn these semantic tricks amidst such exuberant music. "20 Dollar" scuffs up "Blue Monday"'s synth and scrapes it across a prickly rhythm, and culminates in a full recitation of "Where Is My Mind." And it's not just Western music she's stealing: "Mango Pickle Down the River" is a reworking of regional hit "Down River" by the Aboriginal children's group Wilcannia Mob, and "Jimmy" is built around the chorus of the Bollywood song "Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja." This, too, is part of Kala's grand theme, subtly and slyly making grand points about the condensing of cultures and technology's ability to create Pangaea out of far-flung provinces.
More than that, though: Kala perfectly replicates the way poplife happens in 2007. It's a mashterpiece, a reflection of a world where the same DJs spin both bhangra and Biggie and Pixies lyrics seep into everyday conversations. With so much information in such cramped quarters, it was only a matter of time before it all fused in a single place. It's a mall world, after all.
At the end of the record comes "Paper Planes," a magnificent slow-burn banger built around the clanging synth hook from the Clash's "Straight to Hell." It's another instance of clever pilfering, Maya nicking and gutting the chorus from Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker," replacing all the verbs with special effects. The zoom-zoom and boom-boom are gone, and in their place two sounds: a handgun and a cash register. "All I wanna do is bang! bang! bang! bang! and a-ka-ching!/ and take your money," goes the new refrain. It's threatening and playful all at once — a kind of comic book gangster. It's also a little unnecessary: if she keeps writing songs like this, getting paid is not going to require heavy artillery.