Once the opening track "Bamboo Banga" kicks in, its hard to feel otherwise, and not just because of the recurring sample of a car speeding past. It's a party track plain and simple, again using the urgency of Baltimore club rhythms to its advantage and creating what could have been the hipster summer jam of 2007, had it been released around May.
But once you cross the threshold of "Jimmy" -- which finds M.I.A turning an old Bollywood disco tune into her first full-on pop melody -- into "Hussel," suddenly the release date makes a bit more sense.
Unlike her first album Arular, Kala works as well for a night drive as it does for a joyride. The tone is as often ominous as it is celebratory, making all the ambiguous politics in the lyrics a bit more resonant.
"Hussel" finds M.I.A. and guest rapper Afrikan Boy discussing the dark side of capitalism. With lyrics like "I hate money 'cause it makes me numb" and "You think it's tough now? Come to Africa" being processed through a distancing echo filter, the already brooding jungle rhythm seems downright sinister.
The same is true of about 1/3 of the album, especially the extra-sullen "The Turn." Here, M.I.A.'s voice sounds closer to tears than ever as she sings the first two verses about "trying to do my best, get my head above the stress / When money turns the world, your loving turns to less." Perhaps taking advantage of critical comparisons to Missy Elliott, she returns to rapping on the third verse, but even then the sadness isn't really lifted.
On "Paper Planes," Ms. Arulpragasam trades in a portion of her usual swagger for another dose of vulnerability. "Everyone's a winner, we're making our fame" is sung with a sense of irony, maybe even disbelief. And that self-effacement is still palpable despite the gunshot/cash register effects that pepper the chorus.
But as fascinating as it is to see the Sri Lankan superstar present a different side of herself lyrically, anyone who was a fan of Arular already knows that it's less what M.I.A. says, and much more how she says it.
It's what has made her success so confounding to some people: her wordplay is at best clever, often more than a bit silly, and occasionally grating. Lines are sometimes repeated ad nauseum, and her vocal range is taut to put it nicely.
But what M.I.A. has that's missing from so much mainstream hip-hop these days is a sense of rhythmic interplay. While the lyrics may not always be enlightening, the way the lyrics flow into and out of the beats is mesmerizing. Add to this the minor sneer in her inflections, and you've got a voice that's captivating, if not technically impressive.
In "Bamboo Banga," when she tells you she's "knocking on the doors of your Hummer, Hummer," it sounds as much like a come-on as it sounds like a threat. And then there's the completely nonsense bridge of "XR2," in which she strings together a list of abbreviations that don't form a coherent thought, or always even rhyme. But her voice as she does it -- half taunting, half asleep -- makes you follow along anyway.
Of course, if either the rhythm or the voice falters, it threatens to completely flatten the track. For instance, the chorus to "20 Dollar" goes too far out of its way to include a nod to the Pixies, and the vocals completely fall out of sync with the music just before the phrase, "Where is my mind?" It's jarring upon first listen, and still disorienting after repeated spins.
Then there's the third verse of "Jimmy," where her voice attempts a register higher than its comfort zone, to almost comical effect. It sounds less Bollywood than American Idol tryouts.
But isolated moments in isolated tracks aside, Kala as a cohesive album only makes two major errors. First, the inclusion of "Mango Pickle Down River." The song is cute, no doubt, what with its crew of aborigine children (better known as the Wilcannia Mob) rapping alongside M.I.A. over a didjeridu bassline and what is actually one of the best beats on the album. But the kids just aren't up to snuff, frequently coloring outside the lines of the rhythm with their thymes, and ultimately the song sounds like a novelty, or perhaps a really good b-side.
Second, using "Come Around" as the final track mars the record. Originally recorded for Timbaland's latest solo album, the song was relegated to bonus track status overseas and completely removed from the stateside release. The track itself isn't bad, and it doesn't exactly feel out of place; it simply shouldn't be the closer. Not only is ending the album with anyone's voice other than M.I.A.'s completely senseless, but also "Paper Planes" is clearly the better choice. From the brief spoken word before the last chorus, to the final cascading guitar wave, "Paper Planes" is obviously meant to be the closing statement, while "Come Around" is an afterthought. True, it would have been a melancholy note on which to end an M.I.A. album, but the surprise of it would have made fans salivate for the next LP as soon as the disc stopped spinning.
All things considered, it basically comes down to this: if you didn't understand why Arular got all the press that it did, Kala may not clear it up at all. But it's an amazing reaffirmation for the already converted.
Long gone are the scattershot, half-IDM samples of "Galang." Kala is not at all a sequel, and that's precisely why it's brilliant. A sophomore album that breaks away from its predecessor without completely uprooting the artist's established sound is rare, and the musicians who can pull it off should be celebrated.