It's funny the way that the Internet is simultaneously a concave and convex mirror of traditional fame: it allows a wider scope of attention (access, access, access!), and at the same time, a higher level of scrutiny (since it's a multimedia experience, so you immediately get to read about whatever you're consuming). But mostly, no matter what way you look at it, it's distorted. In my world, Maya Arulpragasam is a superstar worthy of obsession beyond her artistic output. To know her music is to know her bio, or really, her lore. In the thousands of interviews she's granted since her 2005 debut Arular, she runs down the main points of her life that everyone knows: she was born in London, her family moved to Sri Lanka when she was six only to flee it years later, and she went to art school; also her father is a Tamil Tiger, which a whole hell of a lot of people say makes him a terrorist. Her image is tied to her music so intimately, it might as well be having an affair with a bass line. She is the thinking liberal's pop star.
Possibly in an attempt to exoticize her as this multi-culti superhero, press has largely downplayed a part of her past that's ostensibly just as crucial to her development as an attention-magnet as her youth spent in mud huts: the time between her art-school education and the release of Arular, when she hung out in L.A., going to parties and soaking in the scene. Too bad, because it's most likely key to her current V.I.P. status. Of course the girl's a schmoozer! She has a major-label deal and has made more videos in the span of two albums and three years than most artists at her sales level have made this decade. She is a people person, as likely to pull them up as to bask in their adoration.
I mention this because I feel like it plays into her excellent new album, Kala, more so than it did on Arular. That album was named after her father and exploded with political sloganeering that had the hypnotic catchiness of propaganda: "galangalangalang" doesn't have a literal translation, but I think what it really means is, "I've got my hooks in you." Kala isn't so catchy -- the closest its best track, "Bird Flu," gets to a hook is an almost slapstick bird squawk that sounds every few bars, matching the crazy intensity of the track's bongos that roll like foreign tongues. Although Kala's named after Arulpragasam's mother and it's supposedly Arular's feminine counterpoint, what I hear most on Kala is gender-free opportunism, an urgency to make an instant connection and please. Kala, in its own fucked-up, degraded-sounding and world-running way, is an album of bangers, bamboo and otherwise. It is all about immediacy, that primal and instant connection to the beat. It's all about right now, which, of course, includes rave retroism. I'd call the specific track I'm referencing, the Diplo-blessed, breaky "XR2," a highlight, but then, virtually everything on Kala is a highlight.
M.I.A.'s politics (which at their most fundamental level, aim to voice the experiences of those who don't have a voice because of globalism) are still in tact, though her message is a bit more opaque. In a song that's about my favorite thing besides pizza, "Boyz," she asks, "How many no-money boys are crazy, how many boys are raw? / How many no-money boys are rowdy, how many start a war?" If she means what she seems to mean, that the combination of testosterone and poverty leads to violence, she's both woefully simplistic and a thousand years late in her observation. In "Hussel," she and guest Afrikan Boy paint a picture of poverty, of sending money home and hot mobile phones and selling sugar, water and pepper on the street. The chorus, "Hussel hussel hussel / Grind grind grind / Why has everyone got hussel on their mind?" would seem to be answered by what precedes it: people hustle because people are fucking poor. At another point, during "The Turn," M.I.A. laments, "When money turns the world / Your lovin' turns to less," but the sad fact is that money does turn the world, and so we're all calibrated on that lesser scale, if she's right. And so who cares, because my less can be more than your less?
And similarly, M.I.A.'s culture as a refugee (a road/world runner) and girl from Sri Lanka are still on display. She's still going on about how she eats her mango, and here's where her motives become questionable. Is she exploiting her otherness or merely reporting? I guarantee you that I love mango as much as she does, but you don't see me detailing how I eat it (sliced from the deli, with a plastic fork, while reading Gawker, inevitably). That's culture, right? But then, that's always the way it is when the member of an underrepresented group paints a picture of her life for the interested but ignorant public. You could practically make a game out of it looking at rap lyrics: CNN or pissing contest? The boys in the hood are always hard, but if that's the case, aren't they too busy to brag about it? Ford Taurus pulls up, everybody run...to the studio to romanticize their lives on the street? You get caught with an ounce and it's over, but apparently, that threat doesn't negate the worth blabbing about it on a major-label release.
I mention M.I.A. in the context of hip-hop references, because I see nothing that isn't utterly hip-hop on Kala. People like to play up the mongrel nature of M.I.A.'s music, her between-genre wiggling, but that's exactly what hip-hop's all about, isn't it? A mishmash of sound by whatever means are feasible? With the creation of music at people's fingertips today, artistry is about being able to go above and beyond presets. That's why years after Timbaland's perpetual futurism has worn off, he's once again the most pursued producer in hip-hop: at least there's a possibility that he'll make something that tickles a section of your brain that you didn't know existed. And that, if his asking price for beats is an indication, is what the people want. If hip-hop is dead or dying or whatever, it's from being suffocated with sameness. M.I.A. ventures out of the realm of tinny 808s and hit-ensuring samples, borrowing from Bollywood and dancehall and bass culture and white dudes (lyrical sources include old Pixies and Jonathan Richman tunes), upholding hip-hop's borrowed aesthetic by harnessing untapped material. More often than not, the sound created by she and producer Switch (best known up to this point for his choppy house productions) wonders what Public Enemy producers the Bomb Squad would sound like with just a small generator, flickering in and out, as their power source. Her voice, too, has the limberness of a rapper (she at least allows herself far more freedom to change her flow and rhythm at will), and the character range of someone like Beth Gibbons (the poles are probably between her role as a yelping rabble rouser on "Boyz" and that of a witchy contrarian on "Hussel"). Kala's less sing-songy than Arular, but her delivery can still float around in that kind of ambiguity. Because she doesn't sing or rap exactly, there's sometimes a question regarding M.I.A.'s talent as a vocalist. But any criticism against M.I.A.'s vocals is nothing more than an attack on her individuality. Thank god she delivers her songs the way she does. Who else would if she didn't?
As beautifully as Sasha Frere-Jones made the case for classifying M.I.A. as "world music" in the single best article written about her, "Bingo in Swansea," (it's unfortunately no longer up on The New Yorker's site, but SFJ at least mentions it here), I really feel like M.I.A. is pure hip-hop and, what's more, hope for the entire genre. If only more people would venture into the jungle! She puts her own spin on rap conventions, hater-hating on ("People judge me so hard / 'Cause I don't floss my titty set"), as well as occasionally boasting ("I put people on the map that never seen a map"). Lest you think that exposing other cultures was a reward in itself, M.I.A. pats herself on the back.
But again: if she doesn't who will? A performer who transforms charisma into art, M.I.A. would have Rihanna's career if the world were fair. But then, her whole point seems to lie in reminding us that it isn't.