M.I.A.: Kala

M.I.A.
Kala
Interscope

When I bought this record ($9.99 list price!), the guy at the counter said, "Who's M.I.A.?" See, it's not so hard to ignore hype, even if you work at a record store. People who complain about hype are in fact addicted to it. Anyway, I said, "She's a British pop singer and rapper, and a sort of hip-hop producer. Um, she was born in Sri Lanka." But even that brilliant and incisive description only grazes the truth, because M.I.A. is pop or hip hop only in the broadest senses, the senses where things get interesting. And although she sings (poorly but effectively) sometimes, and raps (deftly but without acrobatics) sometimes, she's mostly doing stuff in between: swooping, hiccupping, toasting, whispering, talking, yelping. So she's a vocalist.

And, as I said, a producer—or co-producer (working this time mainly with a Londoner called Switch)—a particularly adventurous one, whose hubristic yet welcome mission is to make experimental dance-music collages on behalf of the world's left-behind and screwed over. Here, she calls on her own heritage through samples of Tamil pop, urmi percussion, and a campy cover of a Bollywood disco tune she used to sing as girl. Also, there are crunk synths and didgeridoo bass; a Nigerian MC and these rappin' Aboriginal kids who are just a few pairs of backward jeans away from legendary; plus lots of new-wave quotes and samples for her core following, and lots of trigger cocking and revolutionary rhetoric to make that following nervous. Some of the tracks are Byzantine; some are Spartan. Often the rhythms are so poly they want the whole box of crackers; other times they're as plain as potatoes. Most of the time the bass and drums sound as big as Baltimore, if not Trinidad, if not India, all among the album's recording locales.

Timbaland produces and raps on the last track, the album's sole bummer, and though the beat is likable enough, his usual sorry-ass pickup lines—"Baby girl, you're with me/Need to go to your teepee"—are especially backward and moronic, and when, near the track's end, he says, "Timbaland ain't dead," one thinks, remembering the weird, impassioned, agitated songs that preceded his contribution, I don't know, Timbo, maybe you are.

 
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