M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 1)

Kala

Dear Matthew:

If you’ll recall, I once posited on this blog that Kate Bush was the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars. (New readers: in context, this is more flattering than it sounds. I promise.) When I talked about the modern female art-pop stars she influenced, I mentioned Björk and Fever Ray, but mostly I was thinking of M.I.A. This week, you’ll be listening to her album Kala.

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam — get it? M.I.A.? — is a British-born Tamil who grew up in Sri Lanka during the outbreak of civil war, something that has underscored much of her artistic career. She makes a chaotic sort of electro rap pop type of music that is often highly political in nature. She also draws on many other genres from around the world, from dancehall to baile funk to Bollywood film scores. A trained visual artist, she’s also known for the striking visual elements of her music, including videos, fashion and art. Combine all of these traits, and you have someone almost destined to get huge if she happened to be around at the advent of the digital music revolution. And hey, guess what?

Her first album, Arular (named for her father, a prominent member of a militant group called EROS), caught the ears of all the hip music bloggers when it came out in 2005, right around when music bloggers were starting to become a thing. But it wasn’t until Kala (named for her mother) that she really blew up, and blow up she did — you are hopefully at least passingly familiar with the Clash-sampling mega-hit ‘Paper Planes‘. Kala is also when she first teamed up with producer Switch, and also features further collaborations with Diplo, who was still relatively unknown at the time (and also her boyfriend). In contrast to the comparatively stark beats of her bedroom-produced debut, it’s a lush, worldly collage of sounds — owing to the fact that it was literally recorded around the world. It’s a bombastic, idiosyncratic, in-your-face record, and it solidified her place in the pantheon of internet pop stars. It was probably about as successful as you could ever ask a ‘difficult sophomore album’ to be.

I’ll be honest: Kala is not my favourite M.I.A. album*. But this assignment isn’t about listening to her ‘best’ album — this is about the context. I want to hear your thoughts on one of the first big albums of the digital era, an album that arguably couldn’t have been made in any other era. I want you to really dig into Kala‘s mashup aesthetic. I want you to see how many musical allusions, references and samples you can identify in its sonic collage, and to know how you feel about them. And, of course, I want to know if my Kate Bush analogy is grounded in any sort of reality.

M.I.A. isn’t for everyone. She’s about as subtle as a landmine, and her politics certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way. But her music is like nothing else out there, and that’s more than most can say. Even if you don’t love it, I hope you at least find it interesting.

— Matt

* For the longest time that was Arular, but it’s been recently supplanted by the extremely good Matangi. I’ve warmed up a lot to /\/\ /\ Y /\ over the years, too. In fact, now that I think about it, Kala might actually be my least favourite M.I.A. album. But again! Not the point.

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