A microcosm of M.I.A.’s progression from multi-kulti diva to full-on social critic with a backbeat can be found in the unspoken contrast between particular tracks on her debut Arular and her recent follow-up, Kala. Back in 2005, she proved that she could play the hip-hop game at the same level as American boys, hiding pointed criticisms in coy wording: “What can I get for 10 dollar? / Anything you want” was this Sri Lankan girl’s devastating deal. Two years later, her stakes are far higher than just a doubled price: “Do you know that cost of AKs / Up in Africa? / $20 ain’t shit to you / But that’s how much they are.”
It’s weirdly contradictory to find M.I.A. seemingly so much stronger on this second album named after her mother, instead of the groundbreaking debut named after her Tamil revolutionary father. Then again, M.I.A. excels at revealing contradictions for eye-opening thought and exploiting them for ass-shaking grooves. “Paper Planes” finds her referencing Wreckx-n-Effect and sampling The Clash behind efforts to “take your money,” yet on “Hussel” she confesses “I hate money coz it makes me numb.” The soca-soaked “Boyz” reveals the double-edged sword of machismo via the paired queries “How many boyz are raw?” and “How many start a war?”
Thankfully there are songs like “XR2,” an acronym-filled trip down memory lane, to remind M.I.A. and her fans of her sexy danceability. Assisted yet never dominated by production from the likes of Switch, Timbaland, Blaqstarr and Diplo, M.I.A. shapes a rap album that refuses to acknowledge the implied limits of the genre. Even more so than on Arular, Kala is a B-girl bouillabaisse of influences like Jonathan Richman lyrics, New Order basslines, and Bollywood covers that on its face shouldn’t work yet succeeds almost effortlessly. Where she once sang of soldiers breaking through windows, now M.I.A. is “knocking on the doors of your Hummer…moving with the packs like hyena”—proudly and solidly in control.