"At the time," M.I.A. says, "I was seeing all that horrible, horrible shit towards the end of the war, and no one got it. You know, you'd see a woman holding a baby being blown up by the government, and the government would then blow up the TV station that told you that information, and then a journalist would get killed releasing some cell-phone footage of the news of that cover-up to the Western hemisphere. And there was this constant trying to communicate to the West, trying to show this injustice happening, and no one in the West got it at all."
M.I.A.'s discography is filled with brilliant examples of how to mine gold from a tough situation. In 2006, she intended to follow up her critically-acclaimed-but-modest-selling debut, 2005's Arular, with a hip-hop album that would mix the Baltimore booty bass of frequent collaborator DJ Blaqstarr with a California team-up with Timbaland — but visa issues kept M.I.A. from entering the US. She turned around and went all over the world to record what would become 2007's Kala, finding local musicians, DJs, and singers in Liberia, India, Angola, Trinidad, Australia, and Jamaica. The result was an album that was rhythmically diverse and sonically mind-warping. Mixing Bollywood, new wave, reggae, electroclash, dancehall, and about a thousand other sounds, Kala was world music that refused to be World Music, updating older sounds for the digital age.
"I think that, being from where I'm from, people expected me to stay in my World Music zone," she explains. "And, you know, 'world music' and 'Internet' don't go together in people's minds. Despite the fact that it's India where they actually make all the computers and the chips, or that all that technology shit is happening in China! But when I made that record, no one liked it. People had issues with it because it wasn't mainstream — and then everyone in the mainstream started copying it and then the sound of it became mainstream. I mean, Christina Aguilera is making music that sounds like Kala now."
Unlike Ms. Aguilera, however, M.I.A.'s creative impulse is far more anarchic. At Royale on Monday, she ran through a spirited version of the Kala single "Boyz" (named for the ones she hung with in Jamaica while recording the song), inviting any man in the audience to join her onstage. Within seconds, the stage was creaking with male exuberance. As the song's defibrillating bass drum pounded away, M.I.A. lead the proceedings, veering right to the edge of sheer chaos — and collapse.
The new album at times goes right over that precipice, and not just because she has refused to repeat herself. "I knew what people wanted from me," she says, "but this record wasn't going to be just some hipster dance album, all about having a good time, party party party." Instead, M.I.A. plumbed the emotions roused by the Sri Lankan civil war, and her own marriage and experience having a child, and her new life living in Los Angeles, and discarded the pan-global beat of Kala, replacing it with something far more strange and dark.