Culture clash

M.I.A. confronts American pop protocol
By NICK SYLVESTER  |  September 5, 2007

VIDEO: M.I.A., "Boyz"

M.I.A., "Come Around (remix)"
If there were two golden rules worth following for this reviewer gig, especially when diving into rock-crit-lovefest discs like M.I.A.’s new Kala (Interscope), they’d be 1) never conflate an artist’s backstory with her product; and 2) never read other people’s reviews. I broke GR2 about three weeks ago when nearly every publication I turned to barraged me with the same glowing review. Make no mistake: this is one of the best records of 2007. But in the wake of it, I discovered the rare ease with which reviewers were breaking GR1. Dots had been studiously connected, from the left-field hip-hop sonics and aggro-political sentiment of Kala to the Sri Lankan Londoner’s visa troubles, the disarray of her Brooklyn apartment, her relationship status with ex-beau DJ/producer Diplo, her extended visits throughout Africa and East Asia, the last time she talked with her terrorist daddy, that time her mother (whose name is Kala) refused to accept the sofa M.I.A. bought for her, the fog surrounding her “real” age . . . Reviewers were treating M.I.A. as an oddity: who and why and how was this beautiful brown-skinned girl shouting about the price of AK47s in Africa? But the flip of that question seems more appropriate: why is M.I.A. even an oddity? And, in terms of pop sensibility, how does she offend?

The first song, “Bamboo Banga,” is the album’s longest, clocking in at five minutes — a dare of sorts, right out of the gate. This demanding track begins with a battery of tom-toms and then a stark melody-less rhythm, with just thumps of bass and distorted handclaps and M.I.A.’s atonal reverbed ramblings. The words she’s saying — “roadrunner, roadrunner, going 100 mile per hour” — are immediately recognizable from the first Modern Lovers LP. The relevance of the reference is at best nebulous.

There’s something sardonic in opening a major-label disc this way, with borrowed words and no easy hooks. It’s not unlike Nirvana’s “Serve the Servants,” the first track on their 1993 follow-up to Nevermind, In Utero. People may have wanted another “Smells like Teen Spirit”; instead they got a mess of guitar distortion that entered a beat before expected, and a choice cut of self-saboteur Cobain’s cynicism: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” But M.I.A. goes a step farther, because “Bamboo Banga” never really relents. It remains throughout a dizzying assault on American pop sensibilities, the lyrics playing on her outsider status with linguistic errors that have M.I.A. fancying herself a Kipling-style savage: “We’re moving with the packs like hyena-ena.”

The assault continues. Counting baile funk and Miami bass and dancehall among the genres she borrows from, M.I.A. privileges percussion over melody, groove over structure, exotic over expected instrumentation. “Bird Flu” has a beat built from chicken squawks; the bass line to “Mango Pickle Down River” is played by a didgeridoo. She hardly sings; one of the times she does is on a cover of “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja,” a cheesy Hindi-disco song from 1982 that to many will sound like a polka. The closing “Paper Planes” is a gangsta-rap lullaby that, with a wink, samples the opening seconds of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.”

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