“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” ~Dr. Seuss
“So, is it any good?” That primal question weighs heavily on the slight shoulders of one Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, publicly known as M.I.A. It’s a question that has only built steam since the success of her 2005 debut, Arular, and subsequent announcement of a follow-up. It’s being asked by those who can recite the Sri Lankan-by-way-of-the-U.K. artist’s storied journey from political refugee to Western critical darling; and it’s being asked by those who can recall only the catchy hook of her 2004 break-out hit, “Galang,” from the Honda Civic commercial that featured it. With so many attentive ears, what has M.I.A. chosen to do on her sophomore release, Kala? Simple: Raise more questions.
Kala achieves this by capturing the confused fabric of contemporary life. Recorded in India, Trinidad, Jamaica, Japan and Australia (her original plan to record in the States with name producers was kyboshed when visa problems kept her out of the country for an extended period), the album pulls together flailing sounds, beats and motifs. She finds a rapper’s delight in the Aussie outback (“Mango Pickle Down River,” which is actually “Down River,” the 2003 song by Wilcannia Mob, a group of child rappers from South Wales, Australia, boosted with a verse by M.I.A.); she fuses Indian double-reed instruments with Miami bass on one track (“World Town”), yet still balances her time between Bollywood (“Jimmy,” a reinterpretation of “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja” from the 1982 Bollywood cult classic Disco Dancer) and B’more (“XR2”); and she hears parallels between the “Trans-Europe Express” shuffle and boat migration (“Hussel”).
Taken as a whole, the aforementioned form an idea of this frenzy, but two of the album’s standout tracks lucidly distill this idea. “Bird Flu” and “Boyz,” the most aggressive and sonically distinct cuts on the album, represent both the polar ends of the album’s personality, as well as act as a stark challenge to notions of identity — in this case, Bollywood and India. Both songs contain rhythmic tracks recorded in studios in the heart of Bollywood yet owe little to the populist art. “Bird Flu” cackles at the listener with chopped chicken squaws and a frenetic orchestra of folk drums while M.I.A. collapses space and time with lines like, “Live in trees, chew on feet, watch Lost on cable,” conjuring a scene that is both rural and mod-urban. Similarly, the dancehall banger “Boyz” booms to the beat of both synthesized horns and an amplified Indian bass drum. In this manner, M.I.A. wears her kaleidoscopic badge literally — she adorns the cover with neon fractals and repeated slogans — and proudly.
Unlike Björk’s Volta, which was similarly recorded around the world, Kala is not so much a free-spirited, globetrotting travelogue as it is a deliberate attempt to capture culture in motion. Like other recombinant artists — Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, the Clash, the Beastie Boys (yes, even them), and arguably any twentieth- and twenty-first-century working artist — M.I.A. treats culture, particularly its sounds, as something that can be acquired and reinterpreted. Through both (forced) migration and (leisure) travel, her music becomes rootless: She is an aural immigrant. Thus, her music does not adhere to one idea of being this or about that: not quite a refugee/immigrant, nor a citizen/native; neither feminine nor masculine (Kala is named after her mother and has been described by M.I.A. as being more feminine, as opposed to Arular, which was named after her father); and not hip-hop, dancehall, grime, or any particular genre. As M.I.A. mentioned in her recent New York Times interview, she makes music to create a “third place, somewhere in between the developed world and the developing world.” The result is Kala a stark confrontation of set notions of authenticity and identity — and my new favorite record.