Monday, January 28, 2008

The top 10 albums of 2007: No. 6

M.I.A.
Kala

"You think it's tough now? Come to Africa." The words of M.I.A. tourmate Afrikan Boy burn a hole through our middling concerns.

A little overweight?

Africa has famine.

Looming recession?

Africa has widespread poverty.

Mortgage market mess?

Africa has slums, million-person slums.

The war in Iraq?

Africa has lots of wars. Take your pick.

"You can't touch me, like leprosy."

Africa has leprosy.

The guest rap on "Hussel" is a fragment of what's going on on Kala, M.I.A.'s second album. Kala takes the Earth and covers it in highlighter. India, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Burma, Angola, Somalia and Mozambique get shout-outs. M.I.A. recorded songs on four continents, and she draws from hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, Bollywood, the Middle East and aboriginal music. In this way, the album is a celebration of culture, a bridge to the unfamiliar. Through Kala, a hip-hop fan might discover world music, and an M.I.A. fan might discover the Pixies, whose "Where Is My Mind?" lyrics she adapts in "20 Dollar."

Organic and synthetic collide. Shouts and didgeridoo meet synths and samplers. "Bird Flu" explodes in a clatter of percussion, clucking and children's voices. Auwwwk!! Auwwwk!! The chickens are everywhere as people hassle M.I.A. about her credentials.

Met with so much chaos and hardship, "Jimmy" is joyous escapism, pairing waltzing strings with a percolating disco beat and Hindi-inspired singing. A woman pines for the desirable Jimmy Aaja, though her whimpers at the end indicate that her love will go unrequited.

Like "Jimmy," "The Turn" also could be considered escapist, but it wields a different kind of dissociative power. It brings on vertigo with woozy synths, scattershot hand drums and a disembodied rap posse.

The world of Kala is the Third World, the First World and the world of M.I.A. The three interweave, as does the theme of money. In perhaps all worlds, money is a thing to covet and to loathe, to kill for and to die for. "20 Dollar" tells us that $20 is the going rate for AK-47s in Africa. In "Hussel," the character does terrible things to get money, which she then sends to her far-away family. "I hate money 'cause it makes me numb," she says.

Guns, the unofficial fundraisers, burst out of the lyrics and into the music. Cocking adds tension to the chant "Hands up, guns out!" in "World Town," about destitute people pushed to the brink. "Paper Planes" takes the technique further, filling the choruses with gunshots.

But "Paper Planes," patterned after the ruthlessness of gangsta rap, says something deeper. In the context of Kala, it subverts the braggadocio of thug life to show that, no matter the country, it's still bullets and blood, just different faces falling lifeless to the ground.

There's no glamour in the slaughter. It's not about power; it's about powerlessness.



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