I can’t drive, M.I. A. says flatly. “So I love cars.”
She’s matter-of-fact, answering an obvious question about the possible threads running through the high-octane fumes and sour diesel smoke of her new album KALA, which opens with the roadway rush of “Bamboo Banga”. But because this woman is an uncanny combination of street style and political substance, making music about wanting what you can’t have and trying to work with what you haven’t got whether it’s about about world leaders or road runners or an ex-boyfriend – comes naturally. “I want to talk about men in a different way, instead of making it all about love and all that sloppiness. This isn’t a break-up album,” she says. “It’s a wake up album.”
The story of the album itself is not your average book a studio, book a producer, make the record tale. Instead, M.I. A.’s unresolved struggle to secure a long-term work visa for the United States led to her taking a far less conventional route to make second album, KALA. For undisclosed reasons, “I couldn’t get into the US so I couldn’t work with the producers I wanted to work with and make the album I was supposed to make,” she explains. “So I started traveling, just to kill time.”
M. I.A. ended up in Chennai, India, where she spent weeks live recording drum patterns with local percussionists, writing new songs like “BirdFlu” and “20 Dollar”, holed up in a studio used normally for Bollywood soundtracks. She ultimately filmed a fully-cast video for “Bird Flu” and, frustrated by the delay her not getting a visa was having on her life and career, aired it on the internet sans a commercial release to accompany it, only fuelling anticipation for her second album even further. Subsequent trips found her writing and recording in Trinidad, Jamaica, Australia, Japan and briefly in the US, where she spent a New Year’s Eve in Baltimore hanging with producer Blaqstarr before returning to the studio to make “The Turn” with him.
So while her buzzed-about 2004 debut album, Arular, found her in the leftfield of both dance beats and Third World politics, rapping about her early life split between war-torn Sri Lanka and London’s council estates, KALA has got M. I.A. out in the global street or “World Town”, as she envisions it in one song. It’s from there that she continues to voice for the people pushed to the side in the shell game of international geopolitics, “the Third World deserves freedom of speech just like everyone else,” she says. “We want to fight the battle to say what we want, whether to be serious or just make fun of ourselves.”
“That’s what ‘World Town’ is about; that’s what ‘Paper Planes’ is about it’s what people in the Third World live through,” she continues. “Why won’t you let me in your country? You don’t want me to come to America and be successful? Or is it that you don’t want me to come and brainwash people?”
Arular was a bedroom dancehall rocker that firewired an international fanbase and appealed to plugged-in critics, KALA is a different beast, it’s the beat of the street itself the sound of roadside soundsystems, taxicab transistors, DVD-wired dollar vans, motorbike couriers and parking lot pull-ups. It’s also sound of M. I.A. digging in as both an artist and a producer.
It never occurred to her to repeat the ideas from Arular in a paint by numbers follow-up, so even when returning to team up with producers $witch and Diplo, she often had the two meet her out in the world whether it was Trinidad’s rough Laventille district or a Tokyo hotel room turned recording booth and pushed the collaborations far enough to arrive at something new. KALA also features M. I.A.’ s first guest artists: the Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy who rhymes on the raving “Hussel”, a group of Aborigine adolescents, The Wilcannia Mob, who appear on the didgeridoo beat of “Mango Pickle Down River” and Timbaland who crops up on album closer, “Come Around”.
“For a while I thought I didn’t have time to grow,” she says. “But I realized my growth happened on the road. By now I thought everyone would be making albums like my first one, but that hasn’t happened. So I like this album, if only because it’s so different. I think it’s going to take a few listens, but you gotta give people the benefit of the doubt.”