Postcolonialist scholars, rejoice! Especially those who love a good beat, because the second album by the Sri Lankan Maya Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A. who has also lived in London, India and now, finally, Brooklyn is chock-full of the contradictions and oddities that arise when cultures meet, giving voice to the Third World, or at least moving the focus away from the First. Which means that there are some interesting combinations here, with the artist gathering contributions from both Nigerian and aboriginal rappers, and pop star-maker Timbaland; sampling Bollywood films and the Pixies, the Clash and MC Shan.
And it all makes sense, because M.I.A., like all immigrants (and especially those who come from a place that's been colonized), is an amalgamation of every culture she's experienced, refusing to fit into the clean definitions of "us" and "them," taking bits and pieces from each and making them something entirely her own. On "Bamboo Banga," the record's sparse, wonderful opening track, the lyrics from Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" are sampled. But the meaning behind them is changed from a rock 'n' roll anthem to something a lot more literal and a lot more intense. "I'm knocking on the doors of your Hummer, Hummer," she rhymes, and suddenly images of the free, open road turn into something decidedly less romantic, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots directly addressed. This idea is also tackled in "$20" (the title refers to the price of guns in Africa), as she rap-talks over a New Order sample: "Price of living in a shanty town just seems very high/But we still like T.I., but we still look fly." The latter rhyme adeptly brings together her two worlds in two bars without coming across as self-righteous.
Perhaps M.I.A. is able to do all this so successfully because she isn't addressing problems of which she knows nothing, decrying the situation in the Third World while cozying up in a cushy Manhattan recording studio. No, she grew up in poor areas and traveled worldwide to find and make her beats, her songs and it shows. Kala is honest, gritty with polyrhythms, gun noises, chicken clucks and synths. It's provocative but fun, and, in all ways, quite remarkable.
Marisa Brown writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].