M.I.A.'s relentlessly creative debut, Arular, was accepted in the U.K. as a masterwork right out of the box, and a sheaf of print and digital coverage greeted her in the U.S. as well. And much of the praise was justified. Her mash-up of politically charged hip-hop, dancehall, lo-fi electro and South Asian pop was as wicked as it was sui generis. The fact that the Sri Lankan-rooted, U.K.-based M.I.A. had feet planted in both the developed and third worlds-and apparently had personal ties to the Tamil Tigers-made her unique. She didn't just mouth the immigrant song; she sang it full voice in all its complicated, contradictory, culture-changing glory.
Kala isn't quite as surprising as its predecessor, in large part because anyone familiar with Arular already expects M.I.A. to be audacious, unapologetic and furiously funky. Nonetheless, it's plenty potent. Her recasting of the Modern Lovers' proto-punk classic "Roadrunner" on the cagey lead track, "Bamboo Banga," sets the tone for the rest of the disk. Jumping back and forth from petulant jungle to the deepest dub to rat-a-tat banga beats without ever losing her rhythmic thread, she creates a fractured manifesto about the power of self-awareness, the futility of cultural imperialism and the soul-sucking delusion of Hummer-obsessed hipsters who confuse the accumulation of bling with real achievement.
Sound like a majestic sonic mindfuck? It is, and by the time M.I.A. drifts through the mock-dreamy pop tune "Paper Planes," a tour de force that finds her bringing together recorded gunshots, a children's chorus and biting putdowns of snotty hip-hop savants who brag about "selling more records than the KGB," you're convinced that the only reason the omnipresent Timbaland wanted to produce her (one of his tracks is tacked onto the end of Kala) is that he's determined to jump on her bandwagon.
Visa problems may prevent M.I.A. from hitting these shores in person. But I have a feeling Kala will make it to clubs and iPods everywhere without any in-person promotion.