2007 / Music

Review: M.I.A. Restores, Reimagines Hip-Hop’s Original Mission

Sri Lankan Rapper Tops Acclaimed Debut

With any American invention — whether it’s the atom bomb or basketball or whatever — local practitioners usually maintain a hometown advantage. Few seem to better what Americans have first made (except Japanese car manufacturers) and for every Yao Ming who breaks into the NBA, there are dozens more American players dominating the sport despite its popularity overseas.

Photo: XL Recordings/Interscope Records

Photo: XL Recordings/Interscope Records

In an entirely different arena, another American creation — hip-hop — enjoys a similar monopoly. A type of cultural embargo exists, which marginalizes foreign competition that might challenge the prevailing themes. Tune in to mainstream media coverage of hip-hop and you might think that in the three decades since rap’s birth, the genre has evolved little. A majority of hip-hop stars are still talking about life in the South Bronx or other storied neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the market for hip-hop and its cultural influence now extends around the world.

Just such a stunning example of hip-hop’s growing global reach is Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. Her arrival, signaled by her highly acclaimed 2005 debut and her exhilarating new album, “Kala,” suggests other non-American rap artists have something to say and interesting ways of saying it, perspectives beyond the urban American experience. New voices like hers are increasingly elbowing their way forward amid the gangsta sound-alikes to demand time on the mic. Her emergence provokes interesting questions about who really owns culture after all.

To be blunt, M.I.A. might be treated as a novelty by some because her hood includes parts of the Third World, but a thorough listen and appreciation for the peculiarities of her music should neutralize most patronizing perspectives. M.I.A.’s slightly gaudy, polyrhythmic and electro-studded debut, “Arular,” was a refreshing change of pace as she refined an outsider’s conception of what rap music is — and in the process restored the music’s original mission of originality and genre-mixing. “Kala” is even better and will put to rest any reservations about her hip-hop cachet.

The rapper (born Maya Arulpragasam) grew up in Sri Lanka, an often-troubled island in the Indian Ocean, before emigrating to India and then the United Kingdom. The account of her years as a refugee fleeing the political unrest in her homeland is perfect fodder for an epic film about a family’s perseverance against poverty and political repression, but her musical influences are tuned to hip-hop’s golden era. Forged during her years living in London, M.I.A. musically draws on the pop-art tastes of the ’80s and early ’90s — years when New Wave flourished and hip-hop was still gaining legitimacy. Back then, sampling in hip-hop wasn’t such a polished art and there was a healthy if tenuous cross-pollination between rap, rock and pop. M.I.A.’s appeal, in part, stems from the passion with which she has embraced this forgotten aesthetic.

She has other assets as well, including how distinctly she stands out from the rest of the hip-hop field. Besides her unorthodox vocal delivery and her refreshing use of unusual sound snippets, M.I.A. has several attributes that have positioned her as an unsung hero for critics and hipsters normally skittish about most mainstream hip-hop. First, there’s her ethnicity. Second, there’s her entrancing British accent and exotic beauty. Then, there are her occasionally politically charged lyrics. Finally, there’s her reverence for old-school rap production values, dense layers of sounds constructed as a true sonic collage. Not since The Streets’ thoroughly hyped debut has such a fringe figure in the hip-hop world, with little of the authoritative vocal flow that most MCs command on the mic, positioned to really remold the game.

“Kala” is the kind of record that could prove widely influential. It’s a very strong follow-up to “Arular” and will energize the grassroots campaign already supporting M.I.A. While the album won’t signal a seismic change in which rap’s center of gravity shifts from New York to Karachi or Tokyo, it does indicate that the rap talent pool is getting ever larger and its contributors are increasingly diverse.

Diversity as a concept is something that M.I.A. and the record’s producer, Switch, have thoroughly embraced and this imbues her music with a sense of newness rarely encountered on anything coming from Def Jam’s roster. Using the multi-layer of samples template forged by Public Enemy and other old-school masters, M.I.A. incorporate elements of Caribbean music (reggae, dub, dancehall), club music (jungle, electronica) and early ’80s New Wave. This hodgepodge of sounds and influences yield a string of danceable jams that come across like multicultural bazaars condensed into three-minute snapshots.

M.I.A. is iconoclastic in her selections. The record’s first track, “Bamboo Banga,” transforms the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” into what should become one of the year’s top dance club hits. She begins by imitating the sneering, shambled take on the song that the Sex Pistols attempted on “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle,” then starts splicing in elements of dub, jungle music and dance beats until the song is the size of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” On the mic, she is Lee “Scratch” Perry intoning through a megaphone. It seems that she is sometimes choosing her words for the pleasing combination of sounds more than for meaning, but connecting the dots of her rhymes, one can detect some sneaky wordplay. “I’m knocking on the doors of your Hummer, Hummer,” she sing-raps, calling out to every hip-hop fan to open the door of their pimped-out ride and put her songs on their maxed-out stereo speakers.

If you can find a major fault with “Kala” at all, it’s that there’s no common link tying the tracks together beyond M.I.A.’s eclecticism. Track by track, this doesn’t matter much. “Hussel” builds out from the thunder of tribal drums, flanked by jungle bird calls, before being trampled by the march of processed pachyderm-like keyboard blasts. M.I.A.’s distorted vocals unpredictably shiver and then soar like she’s trying to match up against Bjork, but is soon overshadowed by guest MC Afrikan Boy and his accented vocal delivery. “Paper Planes” utilizes the core melody of the Clash’s “Straight To Hell,” but offsets the sincerity of that by mocking many rap stars by cutting in samples of mock gunfire and cash registers ringing. M.I.A. returns to the early ’80s again for “Jimmy,” when she imagines herself as Blondie’s Debbie Harry with guitar chords shimmering, a “Heart Of Glass” disco dance beat pulsating and faux strings adding some cheap charm. The song falls somewhere between a parody and a sincere homage.

And then, there are some combinations that are just so strange that they work. “Mango Pickle Down River” is a funky, Australian-themed cut that consists of a standard drum beat, the unusual rumble of a didgeridoo and well-executed guest vocals from the Aboriginal children’s hip-hop outfit Wilcannia Mob. The idea of children rapping would be ridiculous enough (add to this the silliness of their rhymes), but each mini-MC is so tight in the pocket that an initial listen might make you think their vocals are just studio trickery. The song’s unusual rhythm is surprisingly effective and this track is without a doubt one of the record’s best.

The disc finishes with a bonus cut, an outtake from M.I.A.’s abbreviated collaboration with producing svengali Timbaland. “Come Around” also appeared as a bonus cut on Tim’s latest solo record, “Timbaland Presents Shock Value,” but is a mesmerizing example of M.I.A.’s rhythmic rapping skills to whatever album it appears on. She slides between her rhymes, slurring sounds and chiming in with herself via overdubs. The effect is hypnotizing even when she’s mouthing wordless syllables. The beat, meanwhile, is classic Timbaland — monstrous bass drum mixed with laconic guitar notes and distorted keyboard trickery (“The beat goes on,” M.I.A. chants). However, the inclusion of some Moroccan belly dancer cymbals gives the track a worldly flair that cloaks it to sound akin to the rest of the album.

What M.I.A. has achieved with “Kala” puts to shame so much of what passes for top-tier hip-hop these days. Every track, she has returned to the idea of pinching a collection of samples so as to create a tapestry of sounds. For her, hip-hop isn’t about grabbing a familiar chorus from an old chestnut to use as a crutch that easily sells a new song. Her achievement won’t ultimately lessen the American stranglehold on hip-hop, but is the best example yet of what’s out there. “Kala” makes hollow mainstream rap’s myopic focus on one concept of what this music is and how it no longer reflects the panoramic view its creators had in the beginning. This vision largely excludes parts of its audience.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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