‘M.I.A. is coming back with power!’ Don’t be fooled by the flat delivery with which M.I.A. appropriates the intro to Jonathan Richman’s vintage hit, ‘Roadrunner’ for her track ‘Bamboo Banger’: Kala is an album that knows no boundaries. Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam is popularly known as M.I.A. (the familiar acronym also stands for ‘Missing in Acton’, the area of west London where the Sri Lankan artist has lived for her formative years.) Somewhere between an electronic dance music flavoured with the gritty textures of grime and Bollywood soundtracks, M.I.A. first came to overground notice with the astounding ‘Galang’ – a 2003 single that had a hook bigger than Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’.
The interest in ‘Galang’ – recorded, like the rest of M.I.A.’s début album, Arular, in a London bedroom – has translated into bigger bucks, personnel and location. Kala, her follow-up, retains the tough impunity of its predecessor, but also leaves you breathless. Recorded in India, Liberia, Jamaica, Australia and Trinidad, Kala is not just 12 tracks of clever beats and a bit of Jamaican-cum-Tamil-flavoured chatting, but an album that’s clever enough to know that listlessness is the enemy of change. ‘Jimmy’, a nominal cover of a song from the Bollywood film Disco Dancer, may sound like a retro-pop piece, but it’s actually a politicized swipe at conflict zones and apathetic youth. (The daughter of a Tamil militant, M.I.A. has some idea of what she’s talking about.) And ‘$20’ – with its lyric, ‘Do you know the cost of AKs up in Africa?’ ‘$20 ain’t shit to you’ – is as direct as its replication of a riff from New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is audacious.Louise Gray