M.I.A.‘s second album was a landmark: an agitprop dance record that restyled hip-hop as one big international block party, mixing up beatbox riddims, playground rhymes, left-field samples and gunshots. It was also, against all odds, a hit, which spawned a huge single and transformed M.I.A. from a cult heroine to an A-lister.
Hits were the furthest thing from Maya Arulpragasam’s mind, though, when she began work on Kala. “I don’t know what people expected of me on my second album, but I wanted it to be difficult,” M.I.A. recalled. “I get really pissed-off, and want to do anything but make easy music.”
She had reason to be pissed-off. M.I.A. had just finished a tour of Japan in support of her debut album, Arular, which had established the 30-year-old Anglo-Sri Lankan as one of music’s sharpest new talents, a rapper-producer who combined beat-savvy and insurgent punk attitude to make clattery, catchy, politically-pointed dance music. She lived in the U.S. – she had an apartment in Brooklyn – and had planned to return to the States to work with mega-producer Timbaland on album number two. But when she went to the U.S. Embassy in her native London to get her visa renewed, she was told that her paperwork was insufficient. Finally, after months of “getting the runaround,” M.I.A. was told she’d been denied re-entry to the U.S. because she matched the profile of a terrorist. “Suddenly, I was this citizen of the Other World – someone completely threatening and disgusting who, you know, might blow up the Super Bowl. ‘Oh no, she said the word ‘P.L.O.’ in a song!’ So [Kala] became about being an outsider voice.”
It also became a travelogue. M.I.A. embarked on a globetrotting journey, gathering up the sounds of five continents. She recorded in India and Angola, in Australia and Trinidad and Jamaica. She worked with British fidget-house producer Switch, with Nigerian-born, London-based rapper Afrikan-Boy, with the Baltimore club fixture DJ Blaqstarr. The music flitted between hip-hop, soca, dub, punk, and an array of other styles; there were interpolations of songs by Jonathan Richman, The Pixes and, in “Jimmy,” a refrain from”Jimmy Jimmy Aaja,” a soundtrack chestnut from the 1982 Bollywood movie Disco Dancer, a memento of her childhood. (Young Maya used to sing it for her family in Sri Lanka when she visited on holidays.) “Every song has a layer of some other country on it,” she said. “It’s like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences.”
For “Bird Flu,” M.I.A. harnessed the power of South Indian percussion: “30 drummers in a room” playing an instrument called the urmi, a which is used in temple rituals. The result, M.I.A. recalled, was “a massive beat – the total opposite of the snap beat sound that was popular in the U.S. at that time. People kept telling me: That record is going to clear the dance floor.”
The lyric matched the thunderous sound, rap boasts that summed up Kala‘s themes of “outsider” pride, resiliency, a jaundiced view of power and privilege from the hardscrabble streets of the global south: “Big on the underground/What’s the point of knocking me down?/Everybody knows/I’m already good on the ground.”
Other songs were still more of a global mash-up. For “Boyz” – a delirious playground chant that morphs into an essay on gender and violence – M.I.A. recorded the beat in India and the vocals in Trinidad, before adding more tracks back in India. (She shot the video in Jamaica.) And then there’s Kala‘s signature hit, M.I.A.’s blockbuster commercial breakthrough “Paper Planes,” which stitches together gunshot and ringing cash register sound effects with that unmistakable snippet from the Clash’s “Straight to Hell.” (The Clash sample was the brainchild of M.I.A.’s ex, the globally-minded Philadelphia beat-guru Diplo.) The beat was catchy, but the message was uncompromising, a satire of the American capitalism (and American anti-immigrant hysteria), inspired by M.I.A.’s immersion in New York and Baltimore street culture. “‘Paper Planes’ is a really Baltimore/Brooklyn song for me,” she said.
Eventually, M.I.A. sorted out her visa problems and made it back to the U.S. In the end, one Timbaland track, “Come Down,” made the album, and it was Kala‘s weakest song – pallid and generic next to the weird, vibrant, fierce music that M.I.A. had concocted in her continent-hopping exile. “It’s a hard album sonically,” she said. “And it’s hard in terms of what it stands for.”