M.I.A. present with presence on ‘Kala’

Why all the fuss over M.I.A.’s latest album ‘Kala?’ Because it’s good. Great good

Becky Lang

M.I.A. just made one of the best albums of the year, and she’s pissed – with just cause.

Bloggers, Pitchfork writers and magazine columnists don’t seem to know who to credit for her worldly buffet of beats, and have made the faux pas of crediting her ex-boyfriend Diplo, and kind-of-producer Timbaland.

Sure, the gentlemen did have a hand, but so did everyone from a roomful of African drummers, a youth project in Australia and even the Pixies, from whom she borrowed the chorus of “Where is My Mind?”

Primarily, M.I.A. is upset because it would appear American journalists are a little reluctant to give a female, Sri Lankan-born artist full credit for her own CD.

This is no Kelly Clarkson fight for the right to write her own (mediocre) songs, or petty disputes between Avril Lavigne and the Matrix songwriting team. Comparisons are impossible, because M.I.A. breaks all paradigms of female artists in the recording industry.

Rather than singing about her “lady lumps,” M.I.A. flirts with taboo subjects like Ö guns. In the opening track, “Bamboo Banga,” she purrs, “M.I.A.’s comin’ back with Poww Ö Power,” and brags that she’s “chewin’ on gunpowder.”

Such antics have kept her busy addressing the fact her dad was connected to the Tamil Tigers, a militia group in her native Sri Lanka, and that her remix album was called “Piracy Funds Terrorism.” With her background, she has much more to talk about than constantly reminding everyone that she’s not running around in chaps.

Her album has not just been a struggle; it’s been an odyssey. Instead of recording with Timbaland, as originally planned, she was denied entry into the country for mysterious reasons, most likely her suspicious savvy of many rebel organizations afoot. Rather than resorting to woe, the singer scrapped together an album from all over the world, setting up shop everywhere from India to Japan.

That’s the other thing she’s pissed about: one of the first hip-hop albums to tell a third-world story to the listeners of Clear Channel is being credited to American names.

“This isn’t a black/white thing. This isn’t an Africa against the world thing; maybe not even a rich/poor thing. Ö It’s a first-world media vs. third-world message thing,” she spews on her MySpace blog.

However, throughout her musical work, this “third-world message,” has managed to achieve the paradox of being sensational to the point of obscurity.

“Hands up/Guns out,” she demands, in the track “World Town.” Gun shots and cash-register bells make up the chorus of “Paper Planes.” These effects could be an endorsement of violent rebellion just as easily as they could be jabs at the fear of terrorism so deeply embedding itself into a culture so as to deny a helpless M.I.A. her visa.

This uncertainty adds intrigue to the album, without detracting from the addictive, club-worthiness of every track.

In her last album, “Arular,” she proved herself a self-made woman, rapping the hell out of the English she learned from British Radio. Her beat machine was twirked to its full capacity, and her lyrics suggested wisdom gained only through growing up dirt poor and in constant danger. “Kala” is like “Arular” through a megaphone, launching M.I.A.’s beats to complete dominance over your ears.

“Bird Flu,” features chaotic drums, squawking chickens and shouting children in a mad race to out-freak one other. The result is like a dystopian version of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”

In the track “$20,” her voice is a far-away echo that makes her sound like a goddess twisting her way out of the depths of an ocean. However, it’s a rare goddess that sings about monkey brains and banana being on her shirt. Most of the narrative on this album, when not about guns, is simply about the hard reality of the people she met while making it.

“A bootleg CD/ color TV Ö We don’t do bling/ but we do white tee,” she sings on “Hussel,” referring to the markets she hung out at while visiting countries like Liberia. Unlike many artists, M.I.A.’s less enchanted by name brands than she is by the people selling knock-offs to make a living.

“Mango Pickle Down River,” is a track by the Wilcania Mob, a band of kids aided by a community project in Sydney. The original track is beatboxing, a didgeridoo and a few anecdotes about fishing and games. M.I.A. welcomes it onto her album in almost complete fidelity, adding only a rap introducing herself, mentioning that she likes mango pickle and that her “money’s all spent.”

Much to the chagrin of the press who want to believe that her album was engineered under a big name, the one track featuring planned-producer, Timbaland, is by no means the standout. Instead his sentiments watered down her vocals with the same ol’ chest-puffing drivel already all over MTV.

If anything, “Kala” is a parade of the momentum that M.I.A. alone possesses. Even if she had wanted to hang out and join the leagues of songstresses who spend more time on the treadmill than over the mike, fate and the U.S. government had other plans. Almost makes you want to trust ’em.