Saturday, September 01, 2007

on representing that world town



It's a shame that MIA had to blow up like she did. Not that she blew up and became the critical darling she is, but in that she didn't get her due until Diplo mashed her up (literally and figuratively) for Piracy Funds Terrorism. The bol Wes simultaneously gave hipsters a touchstone and a half (mixtapes, like rappers do, and mashups!), and associated her with Baltimore club music, which at the time was the kind of "oh you don't know?" thing that people wanted to find out about. Pair that with some flippant comments and lyrics about the PLO, and bang, suddenly she's famous.

I don't know what would have come of MIA had the chips not fallen that way. She snakes through genres and blends them all very effectively, but is hard to pin down. The unwashed masses like to be able to pigeonhole an artist--what do you do with a British/Sri Lankan electro-dancehall kinda rapper who uses a lot of patois and sings about mangos, terrorism, immigration and doin her ting? But that being said, "Galang" still slays dancefloors, as does pretty much all of Arular.

The problem with Kala is that it sounds like what somebody who had never heard MIA would think she sounded like from the hype. That is, Arular put MIA's musical influences first, whereas the new album puts her culture front and center. Covers of Bollywood disco? A rapper named Afrikan Boy? A Bmore club classic co-opted for the international struggle? The song "Bamboo Banga" (spelled like that, no less) The worst incursion is "Mango Pickle Down River", where MIA shoehorns herself into a five-year-old outsider-rap track by a few Aboriginal tweens.

Look, Kala is a really good album. "XR2" is a fucking incredible track, on par with "Galang". "Boyz" and "Bird Flu" work in ways they absolutely shouldn't, and "Bamboo Banga" is actually hot as fuck. As is said Bollywood disco cover, "Jimmy". "Hussel" works and, despite his name and the "you think it's hard now? come to Africa..." line, Afrikan Boy's contribution makes the song.

And more to the point, Kala, with its 8-bit artwork, odes to the wonders of pre-paid wireless and haphazard use of gunshots, actually has some potential as a provocative study on the third world's coming of age. The heavy Baltimore influence alone is either a sign that parts of the third world are catching up with the first, or a grim reminder that parts of the first world are slumping down to the third. But the line between commentary and orientalism is nuance. Kala has the subtlety of a Peter North facial.

The whole thing wreaks of corporate interference. After all, Arular went wood after barely delivering on the controversy that some expected from the line about the PLO in "Sunshowers". You can almost hear Jimmy Iovine, after hearing a more subdued first draft of Kala, ordering Maya banished from the country with a suitcase full of travelers checks, not to return until she has some really hamfisted third world lyrics that will make Jody Rosen pop a boner. ("I want a fucking song called 'Bird Flu'! Put some goddamn chickens in it!")

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