On M.I.A.'s second studio album, Kala, the globetrotting artist did exactly what everyone prayed for: She did not disappoint. Given her meteoric ascension to underground pop-deification, not letting fans down was a pretty astonishing feat.
The story of M.I.A. (known to Homeland Security as Maya Arulpragasam) has reached folklorish levels, and as a music journalist, I am contractually obligated to rehash it. Raised in Sri Lanka, Maya's family moved from one underdeveloped corner to another (with a short stint in India) as civil war tore the country apart. Maya's father was part of the country's separatist militant organization, the Tamil Tigers—something that would later fuel the politics of her music, make for great magazine copy, and give M.I.A. the global-resistance version of "street cred."
Her mother moved the family (minus Dad) to London, where Maya eventually became singer/rapper M.I.A. In 2004, she and Diplo released 1,000 copies of the mix tape Piracy Funds Terrorism, which became the most buzzed-about album that almost nobody had ever heard. By the time her solo debut, Arular, dropped in 2005, audiences desperate to love her music (but couldn't previously get their hands on it) were rewarded with a fantastic album that drew on countless forms of international dance music and bundled them with M.I.A.'s signature blend of militant political jargon, goofy dancing in even goofier outfits, and hand-sprayed tiger (as in Tamil) graphics.
Earlier this year, it was up to M.I.A. to prove that she wasn't a fluke, and she did just that with Kala, a global journey of underground dance, weaving together samples from the Clash, guest spots from Nigerian rappers, cues from Bollywood soundtracks, seizure-inducing album art, and quasi-political phrases like, "I put people on the map who've never seen a map." (A lyric that seems to have impressed everyone but this writer.)
But in the rush of excitement that accompanied M.I.A.'s success on Kala's best tracks—theultra-intense "Bamboo Banga" or the bouncing, languid "Paper Planes"—few people pointed out the album's generous stash of songs that never quite get off the ground. "Bird Flu," the album's sonic mascot, with its pounding polyrhythms, avian squawks, and lyrics about being "an outlaw from the underground," is hook-free and lacks a real chorus. "Boyz" suffers a similar problem, despite its equally dense and urgent non-industrialized tone. Without the pop infrastructure of her best material, Kala often feels like M.I.A. spent more time creating an aesthetic kinship with global underdogs than crafting great songs.
(The album's sourest note comes on "Mango Pickle Down River," a dubious "collaboration" with Wilcannia Mob: Five years ago, under the Wilcannia moniker, five pre-teen aboriginal boys recorded a deliriously good rap/didgeridoo song called "Down River." On Kala, M.I.A. appropriates the entire song, wedges in a forgettable verse of her own, renames the track, and packages it as her own. The defunct Wilcannia Mob—who was hardly a "group" to begin with—signed off on the usage and were presumably compensated fairly, but it reeked of creative bankruptcy and borderline culture-jacking.)
But deification and criticisms aside, Maya Arulpragasam remains a mere human and is certainly allowed a few bum notes over the course of her unique and impressive career. Even for those tiring of the M.I.A. persona/worship/shtick/overexposure, it's impossible to deny the complexity of her musical ambition, and her ability to weave countless strands of global culture into the instantly recognizable brand that is M.I.A.