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M.I.A. Kala
M.I.A.’s Kala

Looking back at the passion and politics of M.I.A.’s Kala

The Sri Lankan rapper’s globe-spanning second album transformed her from a cult hero to an international star – and a decade on from its release, it feels particularly ahead of its time

In the mid-2000s, there was no shortage of political music to stoke your justifiable rage about the state of the world – but if you wanted to hear a perspective that didn’t come from a white guy with a guitar, the options were somewhat more limited. Most protest music was aimed squarely at easy figureheads like George W. Bush rather than the system at large, and during a period of seemingly endless war and global financial turmoil, the lack of viewpoints from people most directly affected by Bush’s policies made those songs feel particularly rote and tired.

In 2007, M.I.A. had already achieved critical acclaim with her debut album Arular, released two years earlier, but she was still a relative unknown in the mainstream. Not a lot of people expected a Sri Lankan refugee with activist parents to be somebody who’d both dominate the Billboard charts and expand the conversation of political music to places that had largely been excluded. Kala, her second album, spawned a worldwide hit in “Paper Planes” and vaulted M.I.A. into the spotlight as a daring producer, vocalist, and activist unafraid to speak her mind and represent those who did not have a mouthpiece. The album was born out of a trip to Australia, India, Jamaica, and Trinidad after her visa back to the US was blocked (she was told she matched the profile of a terrorist) and proved M.I.A.’s skill at subverting tropes, embracing intersectionality, and understanding that music could be rebellious without being sanctimonious.

Though there’s still a lot work left to be done, Kala was a tremendous step forward for voicing the harsh realities that western audiences might previously have only been exposed to on news chyrons. Though the press was often dubious of M.I.A.’s politics when it was first released, a decade later – with issues of diversity and representation on the agenda and Trump catalysing a new generation of politicised artists – the album feels particularly ahead of its time.

SHE SHOWED A NON-WESTERN SIDE OF THE HUSTLER’S MENTALITY

The mid-2000s were the apex of rap’s hustler era, when artists like 50 Cent, T.I., Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy were pumping out street tales that were perfunctorily grim but largely served to glamorise life on the corner. Throughout Kala, M.I.A. exposes us to an entirely different side of hustling than was being explored in mainstream hip hop. There’s minimal glorification here, save for the tangible braggadocio with which she delivers practically every line on the record.

On “Hussel”, she plays the role of someone grinding far away from home to provide their family with a shot at stability. “We do it cheap, hide our money in a heap / Send it home and make ‘em study fixing teeth,” she raps on the opening verse before asking the incisive, topical question, “Why has everyone got hustle on their mind?” atop the hook’s harsh synth lead. Afrikan Boy’s guest verse is an absolute gut check, as the grime MC summarizes the fear of immigrants making extralegal money in the UK: “Police, I try to avoid them / They catch me hustling, they say, ‘Deport him.’” The specificity of the line resonates more deeply than other, more familiar anti-police sentiments, articulating a concern rarely heard in mainstream music. With the global rise of ultra-conservative and fascist ideology today, deportation and immigration bans are in the news more than ever, and we need artists articulating the horror of that threat and inspiring us to fight back.

In fact, Afrikan Boy’s verse leads directly into another reason Kala is such an excellent piece of political expression. In “Paper Planes,” every perceived boast (especially the song’s iconic gun-shots-and-cash-machines hook) is speaking not to the thrill of the heist but the grim circumstances many immigrants narrowly escape. “If you’ve been exposed to gunfights and violence and bombs and war then I can use those sounds backing my thoughts, ya know?” M.I.A. told Touré of The Daily Beast in 2009. “Look, I’ve been shot at so I’m quite comfortable with gunshot sounds. If you have a problem with it, go and talk to the people who were shooting at me.”

That M.I.A. subverts the hustler persona on “Paper Planes” is even more noteworthy given the track was later sampled on T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us”, one of the 2000s’ most luxurious posse cuts (it featured Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne, albeit all in B-minus form). She even references T.I. on “20 Dollar” as a sign of the morally dubious global influence of trap rap: “Price of livin' in a shanty town just seems very high / But we still like T.I.,” she raps.

KALA IS AN ALBUM ABOUT PERSPECTIVES, NOT OUTRAGE

There’s indignation expressed on M.I.A.’s second record to be certain, but Kala’s intent is too diverse and globe-spanning for it to simply be one individual’s clenched fist for 12 songs. On “Mango Pickle Down River” she passes the mic cypher-style to a group of Indigenous Australian pre-teens called the Wilcannia Mob, using their 2002 song “Down River” as the track’s backbone. M.I.A. apes their simple flow, creating a seamless blend between the original verses and her additions. The track is incredibly endearing; the boys introduce themselves and spit a couple bars, but the simple act of having five aboriginal voices on the song remains incredibly rare. More likely than not, no artist has done it since on a platform of this size.

Elsewhere, the aforementioned “Hussel” is Afrikan Boy’s star turn, imploring those with a narrow conception of the street lifestyle to consider the desperation poor youths face on another continent, if only for 16 bars. “You think it’s tough now? Come to Africa!” he interjects. “The Turn” is Kala’s most somber moment as M.I.A. grapples with the fatalism of many war-torn countries that derails the potential of their youth. “The war in me makes a warrior / Like a pitbull getting with a terrier / I’m better off in North Korea / Yeah, dropping from a barrel of a carrier,” she says wearily.

It pairs powerfully with “20 Dollar”, a harsh track about the relative value of money across the planet. “Like do you know the cost of AK’s up in Africa? / 20 dollars ain’t shit to you / But that’s how much they are,” she chirps in a series of lines so blunt that you’ll instantly recall the global gravity of your most recent impulse purchase. The balance here is key; trying to speak from all these perspectives would put M.I.A. in jeopardy of casting herself as a kind of saviour, but she walks the line artfully by giving Afrikan Boy and the Wilcannia Mob their own platform. She truly does represent the “World Town” as well as any breakthrough mainstream artist ever has.

SHE FILTERED THE WORLD’S MUSIC THROUGH AN ULTRA-SPECIFIC LENS

“I’m just trying to build some sort of bridge,” M.I.A. told the New York Times’ Ben Sisario back in 2007. “I’m trying to create a third place, somewhere in between the developed world and the developing world.” To craft the unique soundscapes on Kala, M.I.A. mixed regional instrumentation and melodies with rap and electronic soundscapes to create tracks that felt truly unique and vibrant. M.I.A. co-produced more than half of the record, working heavily with Diplo and Switch (pre-Major Lazer) to make beats that are diverse but feel true to the circumstances of the characters on the record. Many recent artists have made dancehall and Afrobeat-influenced tracks that feel obligatory or non-committal (Drake’s More Life, while good, often sounds as authentic and culturally cognisant as a trip through the Caribbean on a Carnival Cruise).

Because Kala is about immigrants and people in desperate circumstances, there’s a DIY quality to the instrumentals that fits that thematic idea. “XR2” is a rave on a shoestring budget, buoyed by a manic synth horn line and skittering drums from Diplo and Switch. “Jimmy” repurposes a 1982 Bollywood song (“Jimmy Jimmy Aaja”), layering the track’s disco strings atop buzzy 808 drum machines. She used to sing the original for her family in Sri Lanka, according to a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, and the record retains a childlike innocence and reediness in the final mix.

Elsewhere, she channels the Pixies’ classic “Where is My Mind?” into what sounds like a dystopian PA address, using the song’s surrealist lyrics to express how difficult it is for westerners to wrap their minds around the grave problems an ocean away. The didgeridoo bass on “Mango Pickle Down River” flat-out knocks, and paired with the skittering beatbox drums it’s a better approximation of peak Timbaland than his actual contribution to the record, the catchy but unqualified album closer “Come Around”.

While lines like “I put people on the map that never seen a map” on “20 Dollar” may sound lofty, given where both pop and alternative music was ten years ago, M.I.A. was truly a pioneer for a global humanitarian perspective that no artist has been able to deliver quite as well since.