Born in the London borough of Hounslow, moved to the Tamil capital of northern Sri Lanka as a baby, the daughter of an activist, spent time in hiding from the Sri Lankan army. It’s amazing that finding such massive success in such a male dominated field is one of the more boring aspects of MIA’s life. But I guess it’s all of those extreme experiences that lead to her being such a singular voice in hip hop. A singular voice who scored first hit big with the mainstream with her sophomore album, Kala.
If anyone asked me before listening to Kala how likely I thought it was that it would open with lyrics lifted from Jonathan Richmans’ Roadrunner, I would have placed the chances somewhere between Elvis still being alive and Hitler making out with Sarah Silverman. But bugger me, if this album doesn’t open with MIA quoting Richman’s lo-fi masterpiece, in Bamboo Banger. It’s bat shit crazy in the context of the trance inducing beats and monotone vocal delivery, yet somehow, it works.
Tribal drums, fat beats, traditional instruments and child chants all come together to make the even more eclectic BirdFlu. The crazy collage approach continues through Boyz, then finds even more bizarre heights on Jimmy. Classic 70s disco cheese, infused with J-Pop geisha vocals. I’m not usually one for gimmicks or weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But the crazier Kala gets, the better it gets.
Speaking of gimmicks, but more importantly, possible gimmicks that never sink to those depths, the ethnic sounds if MIA and Kala could have so easily descended into gimmickry, but never get there. I don’t know if they’re traditional Sri Lankan or Tamil instruments and melodies she’s working with, or if she’s taking influences from all over the world, or if she’s completely inventing her sounds. But a song like Hussel is all about its tricks and weirdness, without being all about its tricks and weirdness. The result is so much greater than the sum of its quirky parts.
The same comes with Mango Pickle Down Rivers, sampling indigenous Aussie kids, rapping about fishing for bream and playing didge. Their original tracks are charming in their enthusiasm. When MIA ads her own versus in between, she manages to bring the same charm and enthusiasm, despite the major label trappings.
But it’s not all culture appropriation and juxtaposition. 20 Dollar and World Town go balls out on modern electronic and straight up hip hop beats.
Just as inexplicable as the Jonathan Richman lyric sample that opens Kala, is the guitar sample of The Clash in Paper Planes. I don’t think I’m alone in this song being the first time I became aware of MIA. I also don’t think I’m alone in that awareness coming via the trailer for Pineapple Express. That movie was OK, but never quite lived up to the expectations built by the trailer. Paper Planes though, has remained just as cool ever since.
I’m starting to think I might be an MIA fan. Not that I ever actively disliked her music, but I never felt compelled to go past her hits. It turns out, Kala proves there’s a lot more to MIA than those hits.