Album: M.I.A.

Kala (XL)
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The Independent Culture

There's a sort of junkyard, trash-culture exuberance about M.I.A.'s beats that infuses the Anglo-Tamil rapper's work with freshness and immediacy. It's probably significant that she has spent much of the time since 2005's Arular travelling, broadening her horizons beyond the dancehall and cutting beats and raps on the hoof, wherever she fetched up: America, Australia, Japan, the Caribbean and India, where she recorded local percussionists in a Bollywood soundtrack studio, before layering their patterns alongside sundry whoops, whistles and sped-up vocal fragments on the infectious "Bird Flu".

The opener "Bamboo Banga" best crystallises her mood and manner here, with M.I.A.'s sullen, deadpan delivery of Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" mutating into a broader, improvised patois which, I'm guessing, celebrates a car of some form, a "big tiger, jungle jammer, bamboo banga" that lets her keep "movin' with the pack like hyena-eena". That lyrical flourish is typical of her vocal flow, which shamelessly adopts the extemporised, nonsensical approach of nursery rhymes or skipping songs, where the lyric is nine parts rhythm to one part meaning. "I like fish and mango pickle/ When I climb tree, my feet them tickle," she offers in "Mango Pickle Down River", a didgeridoo-fuelled collaboration with the Wilcannia Mob, a group of adolescent Aboriginal rappers.

Deconstructing meaning even further, the hook to "Boyz" dissolves into little more than a rhythmic stammer: "N-*-*-*-*-na-na-na/ How many boys are crazy?" But then, rhythm is at the heart of Kala, with virtually every musical element – the ticking electro beats, tabla, didgeridoo, Bollywood string flourishes, and the waspish shehnai sample repeatedly slashed across "World Town" – mined for its tempo potential rather than melodic.

It's ironic that M.I.A.'s main concern on Kala is money, which she regards in the root-of-all-evil sense. "I hate money 'cos it makes me numb," she raps in "Hussel". But there's no rigour to her arguments: when she does confront the issue of Third World poverty in "20 Dollar", her chatter soon spirals off into a free-associative stream-of-consciousness that abandons social concern.

Not that she professes any moral superiority or cohesive ethical standpoint, as shown by the gun references in "World Town" and "Paper Planes" that stain an otherwise fine album. The latter's blending of gunshots, ringing cash registers and murder references with a children's chorus seems particularly reckless in the current social climate.

Download this: 'Bamboo Banga', 'Bird Flu', 'Mango Pickle Down River', 'Hussel'

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