Sometimes I just don't quite understand the hype. M.I.A.'s debut album Arular was an enjoyable release that was somewhat diminished with a batch of rather weak short tracks and skits. Now, she's back with her follow-up Kala, and it's an even more mixed-bag of music, with a couple tracks that are completely outstanding and others that collapse under her the weight of their own ambition. Gone are the skits of the first album, replaced with a twelve tracks that literally globe-hop with styles, touching on a slew of different international styles while still including some low-fi electronics blasts and other random samples.
The album opens with what are three of the best tracks on the release, setting the table nicely. "Bamboo Banga" is five minutes of minimal beats and repeated boast lines, alternating between booty-banging bass hits and loops of Bollywood music. "Bird Flu" is even better, dropping some massive drum-circle style percussion, chanting kids vocals, squawking bird noises, and low-end bass blasts. It's raucous and primal and a hell of a lot of fun, and "Boyz" follows it up with a slightly-lighter, but still highly rhythmic and playful track that is easily among the most poppy things that she's ever done.
Like her music, which draws from a ton of different influences, her lyrics are a pastiche of pop-culture references, brand-name mentions, world-politics, braggadocio, and shit-stirring. Two of the other strongest songs on the album find her sampling fairly well-known sources, with "$20" yoinking the main synth melody from New Order's "Blue Monday" and turning it into a gritty pulse over flanged-out beats and vocoder vocals. Taking an almost completely direction entirely is "Paper Planes," a stunning track that takes a riff from Joe Strummer and mixes it with some crunchy minimal beats to create a track that's downright pretty. Of course, that placid feel is shattered with gunshot and cash register samples, but that's just how M.I.A. rolls.
One of the biggest missteps on the release is "Jimmy," a hi-NRG Bollywood-style pop track that's so out-of-place that it's a complete head-scratcher. "The Turn" does the album no favors either, blasting heavy bass hits and warbly synth lines into a murky track that never really goes much of anywhere while "Come Around" (which features Timbaland) sounds like a fairly standard chart grab with slithery beats and back-and-forth sexually-charged vocals. Like her debut, Kala is somewhat inconsistent, for slightly different reasons. While there isn't the distraction of short tracks and skits to break the flow, some of the songs essentially do the same thing by shooting high and missing the mark. If you liked her first release, you're probably not going to go wrong here, and she'll no doubt gain some new fans with a few of the more pop-oriented songs.
As an aside, I have to say that the mastering on Kala is so loud that it's often distracting. I suppose that just about every major label release coming down the pipe these days sounds like this (where viewing the actual sound file actually looks like a solid tube), but there's loads of audible compression distortion on the release, and it really muddles things down in places. I only hope that smaller labels don't follow the lead on this 'louder is better' trend (although I've heard a few that certainly have).