20 September 2007

Combat Rock

Sarcasm as an artistic mode is problematic at best. There are, of course, some glorious exceptions—Bela Tarr's 450-minute long-take extravaganza Satantango and Sly Stone's 1973 cover of "Que Sera Sera" jump to mind—but too often sarcasm is the province of the smug, the lazy, or those just not smart enough to be witty.

Certainly none of the above qualities apply to the Sri Lankan-British singer-rapper-producer M.I.A., whose just-released sophomore album Kala surely qualifies for that list of exceptions. First, some recent history: Flush with the artistic and (relative) commercial success of Arular, M.I.A. (aka Maya Arulpragasm) was apparently planning to record her second album with the ubiquitous Timbaland, before visa troubles derailed the collaboration. Indeed, if Rolling Stone is to be believed, M.I.A. was only able to re-enter the United States after Bono, of all people, put in a good word for her at the request of the president of Interscope Records.

So perhaps we have the Bush administration to thank for the globe-trotting Kala. Recorded on several continents, the album draws from sources as musically disparate as Bollywood film scores, raga, hip-hop, and the Modern Lovers—and that's just on the first track, the booming "Bamboo Banger," which reimagines Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" as a portrait of a kid running alongside a tourist's hummer. Not menacing but not exactly friendly, the image establishes an uncertainty of tone, a sense of unknown intentions, that pervades the whole album.

The first three cuts revise and extend the eclectic globo-club music of Arular, while rocking harder and dirtier than anything from the debut. The squawking and clattering "Bird Flu" aims squarely for the central nervous system; the Trinidadian-inflected lead single "Boyz" rides the album's biggest beat. With the fourth track, an interesting development: The album's first conventional "song" is "Jimmy," a lush rendering of a 1980s Bollywood disco tune that a young Maya used to dance to for money at her mother's behest. After a barely decipherable opening verse about Africa ("Take me on ya genocide tour/Take me on a truck to Darfur") she lunges headlong into the original lyrics, attacking the insipid chorus ("You told me that you're busy/Your loving makes me crazy") with girlish (or by her own account, drunken) enthusiasm. It's clear we've entered uncharted territory. What's not clear is exactly what is undercutting what here. Are the casual references to genocide merely a sarcastic send-up of disco vapidity, or also a bitter acknowledgment that the political game is rigged and that those who can might as well dance the night away until the other shoe drops?

M.I.A. may "represent the world town," but she's also pursuing her own singular vision and becoming a global star in the process ("I hate money cos it makes me numb," she says in another song.) Referencing the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" the genre-bending "$20" melds digitally processed Middle Eastern chanting with the deathless bass line of New Order's "Blue Monday". M.I.A. sings "I put people on the map that never seen a map," a boast she's just made good on with a pair of tracks featuring, respectively, a teenage Nigerian MC and a group of aboriginal Australian rappers. Still, as elsewhere on Kala, political ambition is inextricable from the threat of unrepressed violence (the song's title refers to the cost of an AK-47 in some necks of the woods in Africa) and any pretensions to sloganeering are immediately lost in the woozy indeterminacy of the music. Throughout the album, even as M.I.A.'s lyrics reach toward a brave new world, the grooves drag everything back to the grime of the hear and now.

It all comes to a head on "Paper Planes," a song that distills Kala down to its essence. Over the buoyant midtempo pulse of the Clash's immigrant paean "Straight to Hell," M.I.A. raps about a hustler making faking visas, the mock-triumphalist lyrics ("Everyone's a winner/We're making our fame") setting up the ballsiest chours I've heard in years: "All I wanna do is [gunshot] [gunshot] [gunshot] [gunshot] and [gun cocking] [cash register ring] and take your money." By the time she give a shout-out to "third world democracy," the joke's already on us. A masterstroke of world-weary vitriol, "Paper Planes" both returns the gift and swallows its own tail. Just as "Jimmy" is simultaneously pop and anti-pop, it's both political and anti-political.

Nothing could possibly follow it, and so the Timbaland-produced "Come Around" seems deliberately positioned as an afterthought, an ironic nod to the commercial second album that could have been. Timbaland himself sleepwalks through a couple rote verses about picking up some girl in da club, and while the track satisfies in conventional hip-hop terms, its inclusion feels nearly as sarcastic as that of "Jimmy." Or maybe it's just that Tim's beats sound relatively tame compared to what we've been listening to for the past 45 minutes.

What with M.I.A.'s recent bristling at critical insinuations that Arular was masterminded by her former boyfriend/producer Diplo (who worked on three Kala tracks), the type of tired bullshit that, even at this late date, still seems to attach itself to our best female artists, it's tempting to read "Come Around" as an act of aggression: M.I.A. swallowing up and regurgitating in her own image a famous male collaborator. But by this time there's no doubt: Despite the presence of Timbaland, Diplo, primary co-producer Switch, and many other collaborators, this album is no one's but hers. And if anyone makes a better one this year, I'll be amazed.