CD: MIA, Kala


"MIA coming back with power," yells rapper Mathangi Arulpragasam midway through the opening track of her second album. She's certainly coming back with a well-thumbed passport: it was recorded in India, Trinidad, Australia, Jamaica, Japan and America.

Her Mercury-nominated 2005 debut, Arular, sounded pretty exotic. The music's primary influence was the crude Brazilian electro-rap known as baile funk, and the lyrics were about her childhood, split between London and Sri Lanka. On the new album, however, MIA's attitude towards making music seems to have begun mirroring Angelina Jolie's attitude towards starting a family: you can just order in the constituent bits from various far-flung corners of the world.

So Kala offers Indian percussion and Bollywood vocals, more baile funk, African chanting, didgeridoos and Aborigine rappers - The Wilcannia Mob, who sound all of about eight years old - and the low-rent grind and klaxon synthesizers of the hip-hop subgenre called Baltimore club. It also offers the kind of deeply unhip disco that emerged not from Philadelphia or New York, but West Germany. The latter sound is reborn on Jimmy - tinny beats, sawing strings and all.

Kala is an album with a cheeringly irreverent attitude to classic rock and pop. It draws on the past only with subversive intent: the opening Bamboo Banga quotes Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner, but here the lyrics refer not to a motorist, but a beggar hammering on the doors of tourists' passing cars. There's something pleasing about the fact that the one old artist MIA seems interested in lovingly paying unironic homage to is Boney M.

Nevertheless, there are people who will read the above list of international ingredients with a shudder, and can cite strong historical precedent for doing so. We are, after all, talking about dabbling in world music here, and dabbling in world music has long been proven to bring out the worst in musicians: a uniquely irritating combination of dilettantism, earnestness and egocentric smugness. It's an impression that not even Damon Albarn's hugely successful Gorillaz project has been able to dispel: the appearance of a didgeridoo on any kind of rock or pop record remains a signal that listeners should abandon hope and man the lifeboats.

Those allergic to egocentric smugness are unlikely to be reassured by the album's accompanying press blurb, in which MIA depicts herself as spokesperson for the entire Third World, a role that even Bono might consider a little arriviste. Yet earnestness is largely absent from the record itself. It tackles weighty issues, such as illegal immigration and the availability of guns in Africa, but does so with a light touch. She has an eye for suggestive detail - XR2 evokes teenage life 15 years ago with a mention of Mad Dog 20/20, the forgotten, ferocious fortified wine with which adolescents made do in the age before alcopops - but presents those details in a mass of cryptic, contradictory images, mirroring the music's restless snatching of clashing ideas. It's an approach that occasionally risks sounding like glib sloganeering: Jimmy features two lines about genocide in Darfur, perplexingly tacked on to the front of an otherwise straightforward love song. This state of affairs is not much helped by MIA's default vocal setting: a kind of sulky monotone, like a prefect forced to give a reading in assembly. Still, better glib sloganeering than solemn finger-wagging. At least you never feel you're being lectured to.

And you certainly couldn't accuse MIA of undue reverence towards her musical source material. On Bird Flu, the Indian drums get battered amid a backdrop of squawking chickens and shouting children. The Bollywood samples are distorted and twisted almost beyond recognition. Similar treatment is meted out to a Nigerian rapper called Afrikan Boy: before his guest appearance on Hussel gets underway, his voice has been looped, cut up into stuttering patterns, drowned out by a honking synthesizer. Then he starts rapping in a thick west African accent, brilliantly inverting hip-hop's macho posturing. He mimics the swagger of a gangsta rapper, but there's nothing to swagger about in the illegal immigrant world he depicts: "You can't touch me," he snaps, "like leprosy."

Occasionally, she pushes her luck as well as the envelope. In 48 minutes, you get just two songs you might describe as having a tune: Jimmy, and the dreamy, Clash-sampling Paper Planes. You start out thinking it's a brave and bracing decision, but by the time you reach World Town - which, instead of a melody, has a synthesized noise that sounds like a mosquito repeatedly dive-bombing your ear - you begin to question its wisdom. But, even at its weakest moments, Kala sounds unique - and, thrillingly, like an album that could only have been made in 2007, which is not something you can say about many albums made in 2007.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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