M.I.A., maybe more than any other artist ever, makes me totally tongue-tied. The problem isn't about not knowing what to say, it's about listening to Kala and getting more excited than is professionally acceptable for a music critic. It's about wanting to say too many things at once. It's about identity theory and globalization and Elastica and hiphop and Diplo and and and... It's about wanting, impossibly, to come up with some kind of Unified Theory of M.I.A. in a few hundred words.
The problem is that M.I.A. (born Maya Arulpragasam) is too big to contain; there's entirely too much going on in her art—which includes not just music and performances, but also visual art, video, fashion, and a kind of meta internet presence (check the all-caps devolved web text on her MySpace blog). She's a star in the most astrophysical sense—a bright, hot burning ball of gravity that pulls outside artists and ideas into her orbit and keeps them spinning there under her sway. On her 2005 debut, Arular, those bodies included Hollertronix, Richard X, hiphop, baile funk, grime, and more; with Kala, the aggregate grows to include Afrikan Boy, Timbaland, Bollywood, indie rock, Switch, the Clash, aboriginal kiddie rappers the Wilcannia Mob, Paper Rad, and still others. But Arulpragasam absorbs all that into her own work seamlessly—she is the center, but M.I.A. is the whole solar system.
Another problem is that M.I.A.'s persona is so heavily loaded with potent political symbols and pop iconography. With Arular (named after her Tamil Tiger father), M.I.A. struck the pose of a dispossessed international freedom fighter using beats as bombs and sample piracy as terrorism. Early photos showed her dressed in clothing branded with Mickey Mouse, Coca-Cola, hand grenades, and other first-world evils, posing in front of dirt roads and jungle backdrops. It's an appealing image—reinforced by the paramilitary graffiti graphics of the album's artwork and videos—but it bordered on caricature.
Released this past August, Kala (named after her mother) presents a persona less stylized, more thoroughly jelled and three-dimensional. If Arular played on Arulpragasam's reputation as something of an international refugee, Kala recognizes that now, more than anything, M.I.A. is an international indie-pop icon. She still reps third-world struggle—harsh economic realities and political sloganeering appear throughout the album—but just as noticeable are her deft conversations with pop music, from the Modern Lovers intro to "Bamboo Banga" to the Pixies/New Order interpolations of "$20" to the brilliant Clash/Wreckx-N-Effect discourse of "Paper Planes."
On "$20," M.I.A. pulls a stretched- taffy bass line from New Order's "Blue Monday" and transports Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" from American surf to African shantytown, transforming its hook into a drug-numbed meditation on war and poverty. "Bamboo Banga" turns Jonathan Richman's driving anthem "Road Runner" into a comeback declaration for "world runner" M.I.A.
There's more to Kala, of course. There's the international humanitarianism of collaborations "Hussel" and "Mango Pickle Down River." There's the media-saturated acronym spitting of "XR2." There's Timbaland's inexplicable wrong-kind-of-Indian joking (it's bindis, not feathers, and, hell, it's Sri Lankan, not Indian) on "Come Round": "Baby girl/you and me/need to go to your tepee."
"Paper Planes" is the standout track on an album full of contenders—a crush-stoned summer jam that transforms the guitar riff from the Clash's "Straight to Hell" into synthetic sunshine. It's also Kala's most exciting synthesis of the political and the pop, a playful dig into the real, dirty business of rump shaking. The song flips the hook from Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rump Shaker," "All I wanna do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom/and shake your rump," into "All I wanna do is (gun cock)-(gun shots)-(cash register opening)/and take your money!" It's a sly, funny acknowledgement of the economics behind her status as an exoticized sex symbol.
The Clash sample is deep, too. They were one of the first major punk bands to play with revolutionary politics and combat icons in the pop marketplace; jacking one of their songs suggests that M.I.A. is fully aware of the contradictions and pitfalls of pushing art laced with such potent symbols. It's rump shake as revolution as rock 'n' roll swindle.
The breezy track contains more conceptual layers, musical information, and lyrical self-reference than seems possible in a three-and-a-half minute pop song. And it's only one little piece of M.I.A.'s artistic output.
Kala may not support any unified theory of M.I.A., but it marks a massive sophomore success for Arulpragasam—a perfectly aligned cosmos of sound, ideas, and talent; a solidification of her creative identity; and most of all, an electrifying album.