If you read a lot about new music on the Web, odds are pretty good that, at some point between the September 2004 release of "Galang" and the March 2005 release of Arular, you were struck with the urge to turn your computer off or maybe even heave it out of a nearby window. If you don't read a lot about new music on the Web, the preceding sentence indicates how bewildering and draining the chatter about M.I.A. became. Arular, M.I.A.'s first album, leaked well before its official release, allowing journalists and downloaders plenty of time to dissect it and bat ideas back and forth -- taking in the sounds, words, and absolutely all of the context -- before average music fans were able to develop their own opinions.
Maya Arulpragasam spent the early years of her life in a number of places. She moved from London, England, to her parents' native Sri Lanka at the age of six months, only to relocate to Madras, India. During a return stay in Sri Lanka, the civil war taking place within the country escalated to the point where Arulpragasam began to lose family members and friends. She didn't see her father -- a devout and active separatist as part of the Tamil rebellion, which has clashed with the Sinhalese majority -- often throughout these years, but her life stabilized once she and the rest of her family were able to make it back to London.
As a student, Arulpragasam became involved in the arts and published a monogram book of her paintings -- titled -M.I.A. and heavily influenced by the Tamil rebellion. She later connected with Elastica, providing the photography and graphics for the group's second album, and she shot footage during their American tour. Elastica's support act, Peaches, introduced her to the Roland MC-505, a sequencer she became familiar with after returning home. Steve Mackey (Pulp) and Ross Orton became involved after hearing a demo; they made adjustments to "Galang," a song that was then pressed into 500 copies and released, under the name M.I.A., by the Showbiz label. It didn't take long for the song -- a bold, righteous amalgamation of hip-hop, electro, dancehall, grime, and baile funk -- to make an impact with DJs. She wound up signing a contract with XL, which re-released the single and, eventually, debut album Arular in 2005. Anticipation for the release was considerable, only heightened by the Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape she put together with DJ Diplo.
Her second album, Kala, was released in 2007 and was recorded while she spent time in numerous countries. M.I.A. produced most of its tracks with Switch; Blaqstarr, Diplo, and Timbaland also contributed. One single from the album, "Paper Planes," became a surprise hit in summer 2008 after it was used in trailers for the film Pineapple Express; it eventually reached the Top Ten. The soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire also featured M.I.A.'s music; the release featured new material from the artist and was the first disc issued on her N.E.E.T. label. ///Y/, the third M.I.A. album, was released in 2010.
“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.”