Confidence – too much of it blindsides you, too little can cripple. Cutting to the chase, there really isn’t much chance of the latter creeping in here – M.I.A. pheromones into the microphone from the off, rarely leaning back for breath. And yet, the vultures circle. She inspires as much hate as love – she carries many a cross, but few seem to burden. Throw rocks at her – go on, I dare you. Tricky second album: tear up the blueprint of the classic debut, redesign from the ground up. Got a beat from man of the moment Timbaland: Timba-who? Stick it on as a bonus track. Critical accusations of global beat-mining: dust off the passport and go to everywhere you didn’t last time. You’ve got an annoying voice: wail like a territorial tomcat over Bollywood disco. Threat of illegal downloads: put the whole album on your MySpace page. THAT, mon ami, is confidence.
The current Queen of Cool is back – and coolness is not caring what anyone else thinks. This is the second outing of Maya Arulpragasam, and ‘Kala’ is relatively far removed from her first – where it lacks the tightness of ‘Arular’, it gains inexplicable cohesion. If her debut was bathed in sunlight, her sophomore effort is drenched in a humid heat, leaving a trail of sweat-soaked speakers blown through bass. The first four songs are the DJ spinning the last fifteen minutes of the night; the rest represents the rickshaw ride home from the grimiest club that the tourists were told to avoid, backstreet shortcuts and all.
Perhaps ‘Kala’ seems to drag upon first listen – but after that, it is back of the motorcycle stuff. As usual, the clever production touches make such a subtle but crucial difference – holding off the drop on opener “Bamboo Banga” until she kicks in with the mantra “M.I.A. coming back with power, power” works flawlessly. The vocal production is quite simply on a higher level, and her beat selection is more or less exemplary – only one and a half songs sound a touch out of place, “World Town” and “The Turn” (the outro to the latter is hypnotic, it should have been a skit instead of a song). Diplo only handles the e-fueled rave of “XR2”, and immediate come-down of the perfect “Paper Planes”, Timbaland’s “Come Around” is relegated to last place and Blaqstarr’s aforementioned “The Turn” – otherwise, Switch and M.I.A. herself handle main bulk of the action with an impressive disregard for convention. Airdrop them in the bush (the outback wilderness of Australia) and they will find some Aboriginal adolescents to bless a chorus (“Mango Pickle Down River”); in the heart of India’s Bollywood district, they’ll locate a studio and provide their own hilarious take on “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja” from the absolute kitsch classic ‘Disco Dancer’ soundtrack (yes, Maya, I grew up with that too); Mozambique (I think… by now, only God himself knows) finds Afrikan Boy spitting a monster guest verse on “Hussel”, starting off with the stuttering “If you think it’s tough now-ow-ow, Come to Africa!”.
There are three tracks that summarise the feel of the album, the first two being “20 Dollar” and “Paper Planes”. They bring back the feeling of the mid-1990’s futuristic scene so powerfully, it feels like the second coming of a ‘Maxinquaye’-era Tricky, combined with PJ Harvey and early Missy Elliot – this time, with value added danceable twist in undeniable rump-shaker “Boyz”. And whereas individual songs on ‘Arular’ worked well, such as “Galang” and “Bucky Done Gun”, ‘Kala’ represents more of an album’s album – the sum is greater than the parts, and it seems like more of a personal listen. While we all got a slice of the pie last time round, on this occasion, the listener will gain as much or as little as they put in.
And so it should be too. People reference the ‘Sophomore Slump’ so frequently that it seems to cripple albums before their creation – not if you’ve got the balls, the confidence, that semi-detached coolness. M.I.A. already dropped a classic debut – she has earned the right to experiment on her second album. It is more expansive and daring – resulting in more highs and lows than ‘Arular’. Yet it is a strangely alluring and captivating album, revealing more of itself upon each additional listen. Although it seemed as though she played by her own rules on her first album, this LP genuinely throws the rulebook out of the window. It has plenty of WTF moments, but who the hell else could put an album like this together? She is now out in a field of her own – no one else is even close.