e don’t need to talk about politics right now. We don’t need to talk about Sri Lanka or Liberia or Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak or filmi or bhangra. We can strip ourselves from every moment of intertexuality, reference, and geography. In these next few breaths, you don’t have to search anything related to Dravidian languages on Wikipedia.
For at least a few moments the only thing that matters is the sound of Kala, the second full-length from omni-pop warlord Mathangi Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A. And what a sound it is: rivers of digital sandpaper, swarms of bleeps, frigid drum phalanxes, samples of birds, chirping choruses of children, rumbling crunk chants (in your choice of language), trimmed and sequenced and lifted into “songs.”
Our ears march on their own little diaspora, filtering through Kala’s carefully selected smorgasbord of sounds. White Americans don’t recognize that percussion. Some South Asian kids don’t get the joke on “Hussel.” I’ve played a video game with that laser. That string sounds familiar. Trinadian kids don’t know what a “didge” is. We all can get lost together.
Even if Kala was just this arena of sounds, from the knee-jerk “foreign” woodwinds to the homogenized electro-dance disco sizzles, to the formative kick drums of American boom-bap hip hop, it would be a fantastic, assertive album, earnestly political and aesthetically satisfying.
Ms. Arulpragasm, however, is not satisfied with sonics.
In a voice that shifts from pout to growl in a beat’s time, M.I.A.’s verses and hooks are as mercurial in tone as the backing tracks. The politics here are messier than on Arular. There the guerillas, skinny little girls and hungry “other” citizens were plane rides away, bidding their time for a “Yorkshire banker.”
Now they’re “knocking on the doors of ya’ hummer, hummer” and flipping our own capital loving words on us: “I’m big timer!" Territories, as in “ours” and “theirs,” don’t exist: “Yo don’t be calling me desperate /When I'm knocking on the door.”
So, yes, though we’ve tried to avoid it for as long as we could, the true deal breaker in M.I.A.’s and Kala’s bid for complete incandescence is just how aptly they, for the lack of a better word, truly fuck with our expectations for the body sound politic.
We give her all the DailyKos, liberal-guilt carte blanche and she turns her soapbox into cheeky, finger-flippng melodrama, Maya, on heartbreak: “I'm better off in North Korea / Yeah, droppin' from a barrel of a carrier.” She gives us ready-to-be-fetishized guest artists (an African rapping about “sell water and sugar and pepper”! Australian aboriginal kids crudely beat-boxing and fumbling through quiet rhymes about fishing and shaking a leg!) and then kills you by the cash register (the narcotic, gorgeous “Paper Planes”). It’s an impatient ballet of subversions and expectations centered in gender, power, commerce, violence, and language, all coated with dripping wet sound. She, and the world, has lost control again.