M.I.A. with BJORK, INTERPOL, ARTIC MONKEYS and many more, at Toronto Island Park, September 8. One-day pass, $82, two-day pass $138, including ferry. www.virginfestival.ca. Rating: NNNN
Of all the collaborators and guests on M.I.A.'s new album, Kala (XL), one looms a bit larger than the rest.
No, we're not talking about Timbaland, who produced one cut. Instead, it's the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which inexplicably decided to deny M.I.A. a visa, forcing her to abandon her original plan of setting up shop in New York to work with the superstar producer.
"I couldn't get into the U.S., so I went everywhere else," a sleepy Maya Arulpragasam explains from her tour bus on her way out of London.
"The sense that came out of those travels was that there are loads of Third World countries that are going to become superpowers, and there need to be more bridges built between the First and Third Worlds, and that it's already happening. I just happened to be on that bridge and that's what's reflected."
This statement might imply that Kala is as political as M.I.A.'s debut, Arular, but this time around the mood is more playful and the social commentary only an incidental by-product of the subject matter. As she puts it, this album is about "bootleggers in Africa and chickens in India."
Whereas Arular was named for her activist father, whose political passions led her to spend the first 10 years of her life in the middle of a civil war in Sri Lanka, Kala is named for her mother and seems less about the what and more the what now, and about people making the most out of whatever is around them.
"With Arular, I made a political album because it was perfect for the time that I made it. Now, there's no reason for me to be so outwardly political. From 2001 to 2007 we've seen everything; we all know how it turned out. We saw Saddam hanging on YouTube.
"While making this album, I was on the 'threat to homeland security' list for 10 months. I don't need to sing about it; it's obvious. Freedom of speech has a floor and a ceiling - fine, we'll work within that structure. It's not like you're going to fight it and change it. It's about what's the best you can do within it and still be you."
It all appears to have worked out for the best, though, even if this is not the album she'd planned. If this is Third World vs. First World, it looks like the Third World is winning. Unknown Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy's verse on Hussel blows Timbaland's cameo out of the water, and the Australian aboriginal kid rappers the Wilcannia Mob manage to rap about fishing without sounding cutesy or ridiculous. (Take notes, Chemical Brothers.)
While Diplo's contributions keep some of the sonic flavour of Arular on board, it's edgy underground house producer Switch (aka Dave Taylor) who appears on more of it than anyone else and seems to have meshed best with her.
"My problem when I was making Arular was that all the producers were really great but at the same time they were all really opinionated about who they were, what they were, what they did.
"Dave was the only person who was like, 'Well I'm still growing, I don't know who I am,' and I feel like I don't know who I am either. Working with someone like that really creates opportunities for exploring. He was always really open, which meant you could drive it in any direction you wanted."
That openness informed much of how the record developed and, as you might infer, there is a considerable amount of sonic weirdness throughout. The bass may be booming, but it's very raw and organic-sounding at the same time.
The philosophy seems to have been "Let's go with this and see where it takes us," and what emerged is a record that could be described as world music but sounds nothing like what happens when First World artists hire on "ethnic" musicians to add some colour to their pop songs.
"One day we were recording these kids who were living in this straw thatched-roof thing they built on top of the studio. In India, all the poor kids just build these little houses on top of other people's houses.
"This girl Paulina heard that I was recording them, so she came by all dressed up and said, 'I'm going to sing on your record.' I'm like, 'Who are you?', and she goes, 'You've been looking for me.' She ended up singing the hook on Boyz, and from then on we tried to build things around how that kind of thing happened.
"You grow the project by getting more involvement from the people who are there, and get more and more people involved. Everyone got to experience it, from making the song and shooting the video to us making the clothes and bandanas and stuff like that, so the process is really important.
"It was about going and spending some money, siphoning it off to some people. It really is about their voice, so you want to include them in it and let them articulate it."
It's tough to say if this is a better album than Arular. Both have their strengths, and some listeners will undoubtedly find this one a little too weird. M.I.A.'s father's reaction to her debut was to ask her not to name it after him, but this time around the namesake was significantly more grateful for the tribute.
"My mom found out about the album title on Mother's Day from the paper, and she was all, 'Oh my god, thank you, that's the best Mother's Day present in the world', so I pretended that I'd planned it that way, but it was actually just coincidence."
Don't worry, we won't tell her.
For full V-Fest preview coverage, check out the September 6 issue of NOW.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Music Clips from M.I.A.'s new album Kala
M.I.A. Kala (XL) Rating: NNNN
Kala opens with M.I.A. dropping her impression of Johnny Rotten doing a version of Jonathan Richman's Road Runner over a menacing 808 kick drum while engine sounds swirl in the background. In this version, "Road runner, road runner, going 100 miles an hour" gets twisted to refer to Third World kids running alongside Hummers driven by foreigners, banging on the doors for attention and handouts.
This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the disc - abstract glimpses of the First World through the eyes of the colonized, over strange rewired hiphop and dancehall rhythms. It's less overtly political than her debut album, Arular. This time it's even more about images and moments that try to capture the experiences she had travelling the world to make this CD.
Some of it might be lighthearted, like the Australian Aboriginal child hiphop crew the Wilcannia Mob rapping about fishing on Mango Pickle Down River, but next, on 20 Dollar, M.I.A.'s telling us how much an AK-47 costs.
These aren't your typical club bangers, even if they do sound pretty massive on the dance floor. BB