Falling in love with M.I.A.'s second album, Kala, is like flaunting a mildly controversial T-shirt. Maybe there's a political slogan on the front, or a picture of an alien smoking a joint—something that almost offends. All you know is that someone will give you shit about wearing this shirt, no matter how awesome it is. So with the shirt or the album, you're left with a choice: Do you risk the potential scrutiny? Do you risk the potential ego blow? With all the hype and the absurd trash art and the supposed trendiness, do you dare eat this peach?
Take her at face value and M.I.A. (London-born Maya Arulpragasam) is the focal point of a worldwide culture clash. Her dance-rap aesthetic is brighter than Day-Glo; her entire approach raises the suspicion of anyone ever slighted by the rise and fall of slap bracelets and Pogz. Intellectuals want to dismiss M.I.A.—it makes them feel discerning, impervious to lapses of "good taste." This sort of party music, with its political links and trendy mess of rave and soca and whatever else... it's just too present-tense; it won't age well.
Kala is similar to M.I.A.'s 2005 debut, Arular, in its recording process, except this time the global recording romp was born out of necessity. Due to visa problems over the course of 2006, M.I.A. was locked out of the United States, which forced her to compile layers of beats while shuffling between Trinidad, Jamaica, and India "in exile." The album reflects this back-n-forth hustle—oftentimes a single track uses each regional imprint at the same time. Soca beats humanize Diplo's influence on "Bird Flu"; Bollywood strings weave through Italo-disco bounce on the Switch-M.I.A. collaboration "Jimmy." It's a dense effect to say the least.
But it's not the hustle of influences that ties Kala together—it's the sticky humidity. Opening track "Bamboo Banger" never peaks or lulls, it's just an unrelenting blur of echo and stomp. It feels like heat, not in the slangy, complimentary sense, but like when you're really fucking hot. Moving, but slow, dancing in a daze at 3:00 a.m. That blur continues through the first half of the album, finally peaking on "Mango Pickle Down River," where the Wilcannia Mob (Aboriginal kids!) mush out cotton-mouthed "My name is..." rhymes. It's an odd collection, these kids—they sound like little aliens over an electrical pulse of didgeridoo bass. When M.I.A. mentions "organic," it's an almost surprising reminder.
The heat is finally broken by "$20," the glacial highpoint of Kala. Going straight for a fake epic-trance breakdown, M.I.A.'s auto-tuned vocals are robo-diva ice; rave bass smears out the melody from "Blue Monday" so blatantly it's genius. Then, when this mammoth beat threatens to shatter the whole song, M.I.A. kills another sacred cow by biting Pixies lyrics, asking, "Where is my mind?" Nothing actually breaks, and the song's real question bubbles through: Why all the scrutiny?
If Kala contains any capitulation, it's all Timbaland's fault. As a tacked-on bonus, the album's closing track, "Come Around," features Timbo doing what he does best (producing) and worst (rapping). Putting his dumbest foot forward, dude trades rhymes with M.I.A. and comes up with "baby girl, go to your tepee." Huh? I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be funny, what with M.I.A.'s Bollywood leanings and all, but it's either too smart or too stupid for the room, take your pick.
Tepee jokes aside, Kala is the album M.I.A. needed to make—something that proves she had more to give than political sloganeering and tank-n-bomb militancy. Yeah, the hustle and the guns are still there, but they're used differently—it's more personal, not as gimmicky. Everything is so dense—not just the production, but the concept, too. In comparison, Arular seemed like a pose, as if M.I.A. was trying to match the toughness of her father, a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger. But with Kala, the pose—if there is any—is more natural. The culture clash and visual mess are still shocking, but they make more sense now. Kala is present-tense music, but it's not a throwaway thrill. It hits too hard.