If you've been a faithful Riff reader, you've heard a lot about M.I.A., otherwise known as Maya Arulpragasam: from the YouTube debuts of "Bird Flu" and "Boyz," to the arrival of advance copies of the new album, to her streaming all of Kala online. So, the album arrives in stores tomorrow: what's the final verdict?
With Kala named after Arulpragasam's mother, it's illustrative to look back at Arular, her 2005 debut, named after her father. The first singles, "Sunshowers" and "Galang," featured similar downtempo dancehall beats, with edgy lyrics that seemed to invite analysis as part of the London-born singer's Sri Lankan heritage and her father's participation in militant Tamil activism: "shotgun, get down / too late, you down." My experience with the full-length was a kind of gradual awareness: certain tracks grabbed my attention at first (the rollicking freestyle of "10 Dollar") while others took time to adjust to (the aggressive Baile funk of "Bucky Done Gun"). As time went by, the album seemed to capture both a forward-looking electronic sound (partially thanks to its edgy producers, including Diplo and Richard X), as well as a political mood informed by both anger and ebullience.
So, two years later, M.I.A. is back in action, with production duties mostly taken over by Switch, a UK electronic artist and DJ whose chopped-up style teeters on the bleeding edge of dance music. Again, the first singles, "Bird Flu" and "Boyz," featured similar triple-time beats and lyrics with obtuse references to violence and politics. But as Robert Christgau pointed out in Rolling Stone, the rest of Kala doesn't seem accessible, with jagged beats and even more eclectic references: Bollywood, didgeridoo, The Clash, The Pixies, Baltimore house. While he calls this an "art music," it may be helpful to remember that Arular's catchiness was by no means immediate, and tracks like "Bucky Done Gun" seemed brittle and abrasive at first. M.I.A. has a tendency to shift the world to her point of view, and while Kala forces your ears to adjust to its pressurized depths (and vertigo-inducing heights), I'd buy stock in Kala sing-along futures.