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There may be no MC around right now who’s more benighted than M.I.A. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Maya Arulpragasam claimed that critics don’t take her seriously because she’s a she. Or perhaps it’s because critics think that “people from undeveloped countries can’t have ideas of their own unless it’s backed up by someone who’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed.” The funny thing is, rather than holding her back, those are the reasons that critics give M.I.A. such wide latitude: The vocalist’s gender makes her exotic in a genre dominated by men, and the decade she spent in Sri Lanka as a youth makes her exotic, period.
How else can you explain the kid-glove treatment received by 2005’s Arular, the predecessor to its recently released follow-up, Kala? Reviewing Arular in the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones praised the music for “the weaving of the political”—such as radical-chic references to war zones and the PLO—“into the fabric of what are still, basically, dance tunes.” Or are they? In the Los Angeles Times, Susan Carpenter suggested that M.I.A., whose father trained with the PLO in Lebanon and helped found a revolutionary Tamil organization in Sri Lanka, doesn’t make normal hip-hop. She makes “songs exploding with bombs, where glitchy electronics mimic machine gun fire.” Even Robert Christgau, the self-described dean of rock critics, was seduced by the backstory. Arular’s violent subject matter, he wrote, “is the territory I’ve always wished Missy Elliot would risk,” he wrote in the Village Voice, “and let’s not be coy about how M.I.A. got there.”
Fine. M.I.A.’s life—from civil war to art school—makes for great copy. But biography doesn’t put bodies on the dance floor—much less move more than 129,000 records, which is what Arular has sold so far. M.I.A.’s debut, as it turns out, is good-to-great inasmuch as it behaves like modern pop music—it’s catchy, accessible, and somewhat futuristic—not because of its specifics about weaponry or vagaries about revolution. Where Kala is successful, it’s successful for the same reason. “Boyz,” the new album’s first single and best track, is a jubilant marriage of children’s-song melody (“Nah-na-na-nah-na-na-na”) and Trinidadian street rhythm. It is not, however, an important political statement, despite a lyric that asks, “How many no-money boys are crazy/How many boyz are raw/How many no-money boyz are rowdy/How many start a war?”
What’s maddening about all the chatter about M.I.A.’s “weaving of the political” is that her champions are doing more heavy lifting than she is. As a lyricist, M.I.A. offers just enough to get critics excited. Kala’s opener, “Bamboo Banger,” is another example of sturdy pop music masquerading as radicalism. The song, which borrows from the Modern Lovers and a Bollywood soundtrack, is marked by a number of tantalizing lines that never become more than impressionistic. So what if she’s knocking on the door of a “Hummer-Hummer”? She never tells us why such an act is important, or what its consequences are. Worse still, when M.I.A. raps the song’s most quotable refrain, “M.I.A. coming back with power-power,” she sounds less like Public Enemy than the Spice Girls.
To be fair, M.I.A. is working an almost unworkable angle. After all, how do you record, as she told the Voice in July, “in a million-pound studio with T.I. and Britney next door” while also trying to midwife a revolution? Given her background in Sri Lanka, it’s easy to believe that the latter means something different to her than it does to, say, Rage Against the Machine. But at some point the concerns of the marketplace are bound to shape her music. The ballad “Paper Planes” seems to be an acknowledgment of the realities on the ground. The chorus, which is built around a loop from the Clash’s Combat Rock, is an odd jumble of lyrics, gunshots, and the sound of a cash register opening, all of which add up to the message: “All I want to do is”—bang! bang! bang! bang!—“and, uh”—ka-ching!—“take your money.”
A stickup might be the only way she’s going to get it. Arular was widely feted for its globalized sound, but that record is downright tidy in comparison to Kala, a mess of an album that closely resembles the cacaphonous culture jamming happening on the streets of any major city. M.I.A. says that she wasn’t thinking about American clubs when she wrote Kala’s first single, and the same must be true for the rest of the record. Much of Kala suffers from the cluttered and brittle production provided by U.K. remix artist Switch. And that which doesn’t is marred by M.I.A.’s lackadaisical songwriting. On “Hussel,” she settles on a monorhyme scheme that sounds as if she made it up on the spot—and not in a good way. “Four by three, three buy three,” she raps in a sing-song patois. “Buy one song, get one free/Maybe me/A bootleg CD/Color TV/Or a DVD.”
No amount of context can turn Kala’s weaknesses into strengths, and anyone who says otherwise is probably engaging in what President Bush has called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Those who buy into the Benetton aspects of M.I.A.’s appeal might bristle at such a charge, but there’s nothing radical or progressive about weak art. As music, Arular would be every bit as memorable if it were made by a white male from America—which, if you believe the rumor that the producer Diplo was its mastermind, it was—and Kala would be every bit as disappointing. Neither is all that important for what M.I.A. has to say, but neither needs to be. This is, as Frere-Jones pointed out, dance music. If it don’t “make you blow,” as M.I.A. sang on Arular, then what good is it?