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Worldly Woman

M.I.A. takes on the planet's music -- and issues -- on a remarkable album



Careerwise, the recent album M.I.A.'s Kala recalls is Kanye West's Late Registration -- an unexpectedly sure-footed follow-up to a brainy beat-adept's can-you-top-this debut. And though West is the more universal musician, especially as Americans conceive the universe, there are also musical similarities: Both albums challenge sophomore slump by risking pretension. But where West hired classically trained Jon Brion, the Sri Lankan-British rapper spread out and bent down low. Originally she'd hoped to trade the grimy beats of 2005's Arular for the more radio-friendly dirt of Timbaland. That plan fizzled, for two reasons -- not just the feds' refusal to let M.I.A. re-enter the U.S., but her instinctive reluctance to turn into Nelly Furtado once the chance was in her lap.

Plus, though she's polite about it, a sneaking suspicion that maybe Timbo wasn't all that -- that there were edgier beat-makers all over the place. With visa madness blockading her new Brooklyn apartment, she turned world traveler, pulling in multiple Indian musics and encompassing Jamaican dance-hall moves,Indian-Trinidadian multicontinental mash-up, Liberian vibes, a British-Nigerian rapper, Australian aboriginal hip-hop, Baltimore hip-hop, Jonathan Richman, the Clash and a bonus afterthought from Timbaland's solo album. Though she claims this record is more personal and less political than Arular, that's misleading. The political was all too personal on an album obsessed with her long-lost father, a player in Sri Lanka's terrorist-revolutionary Tamil Tigers. Here, that conflict-ridden relationship is behind her. Star access enables a woman who grew up an impoverished refugee to observe the outcomes of similar histories in immigrant and minority communities worldwide. If you don't think that's political, ask your mama -- or hers, who's named Kala.

Arular was about M.I.A. -- her ambition, her education, her contradictions, her history of violence. Kala is about the brown-skinned Other now obsessing Euro-America -- described from the outside by a brown-skinned sympathizer who's an insider for as long as her visa holds up. It opens with the uninvitingly spare "Bamboo Banga," which samples Indian Tamil filmi composer Ilayaraja and bends the lyric of Richman's "Roadrunner" so it celebrates a kid running alongside a Third World tourist's Hummer and banging on its door. "BirdFlu" disses dogging males everywhere -- "selfish little roamers" -- over another filmi sample and a barely synchronized four-four on some thirty deep-toned urmi drums. Also on "BirdFlu," high kiddie/girlie interjections add a cuteness that's sustained pitchwise on "Boyz," with its video of synchronized Kingston rudies shaking their moneymakers for the Interscope dollar. Only with "Jimmy," a Bollywood disco number a kiddie M.I.A. used to dance to for money at Sri Lankan parties, does a conventional song surface.

You've probably gathered that unlike Late Registration, Kala is less pop-friendly than its predecessor. It's heavier, noisier, more jagged. Timbaland might conceivably have found a hit for M.I.A.; London-based "dirty house" producer Switch, credited on eight of twelve tracks, will not. The eclectic world-underclass dance amalgam M.I.A. has constructed is an art music whose concept recalls the Clash as much as anything else -- the aggression of the early Clash and the reach of the late (who she samples). But soon enough, the music does soften and, occasionally, give up a tune. There's melancholy melodica, Sri Lankan temple horn, the eighteen-year-old rapper Afrikanboy describing his hustles, and several child choruses, notably on "Mango Pickle Down River," where preteens rap about bridges and fridges to rhyme with the didge -- didgeridoo -- that provides their groaning bass.

But none of these pleasures comes as easy as the high spirits of M.I.A.'s debut album seemed to promise. And in the end, that's why Kala strikes deep. There's a resolute sarcasm, a weariness and defiant determination, a sense of pleasure carved out of work -- articulated by the lyrics, embodied by the music. A riot of human, musical and mechanical sounds bubbles underneath these tracks. Not a white riot, that's for sure, and not a dangerous one either -- unless you believe every Other wants what you got and has nothing to offer in return. Kala proves what bullshit that is. The danger is all the evil fools who aren't convinced.

Rolling Stone, Aug. 23, 2007