There are two versions of the MIA myth. Myth the first: Back in 2005, into a world increasingly obsessed with revivalism, a techinicoloured terrorist emerged from the streets of east London dressed like sonic the hedgehog at a basement rave and ripped UK music from limb to limb. Then, armed with neon thread, this visionary stitched it back together, creating a patchwork of rave, raga, rap and rock. She stretched time and space until they snapped, slinging any dilapidated concept of genre into the cosmos to be gorged on by a trio of luminescent hip-hop phoenixes.
Myth the second: In 2005, into a world of genuine musical visionaries (Dizzee Rascal, Arcade Fire) a fluro idiot crawled inexplicably from beneath the nails of the zeitgeist. Backed by an incomprehensible melange of execrable sonic affectations, this bourgeois Londoner sang the praises of questionable military struggles in some of the poorest countries in the world while being dressed by the hippest designers in the west. Her unbearable vomit music was something forged in the flames of a thousand meaningless fads and she herself was destined for the pyre of fashion once her 15 seconds were over.
While some members of the NME office have fed several copies of her new album ‘Kaya’ into the shredder claiming aural abuse, this writer is inclined to veer massively towards any myth announcing MIA’s brilliance. The word ‘innovation’ is these days an ironically traditionalist musical term, but MIA innovates club music, art music and pop music at every turn.
This is an album recorded from India to Liberia, London and Beverly Hills and MIA leads her motley crew of influences through mansions, squats and slums with the unbeatable focus of Hannibal’s army. Leaked track ‘Birdflu’ bustles like an incinerated coup, while leaked (is she doing this on purpose?) single ‘Jimmy’ dances beneath a disco interpretation of the Bollywood Orchestra. It says much of her priorities, that from a thick guest list including Diplo, Timbaland, Aboriginal street musicians, Indian orchestras and mute(!?) African emcees, that it is only the superstar American producer feeling the cold rejection of the cutting room floor.
Three years ago her militant debut ‘Arular’ goaded every genre hiding within immigrant Britain into 14 songs, now as if she wasn’t too busy worrying about floods, disease and the cunts who are running the show, she’s doing the same trick for the whole of the planet. She’s pulling up her lame leggings and kicking this silly bastard Earth into shape with a tough diet of basement, grime and electro reimaginationsof your alt.rock favourites. Yup, that’s right, from a white, western perspective, this is the weirdest indie megamix you’ll ever come across.
‘$20’ sees the militant attacking her audience over hellishly twisted rhythms of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. “Do you know the cost of AKs up in Africa/ $20 aint shit to you but that’s how much they are” she chants, before, inexplicably breaking into the chorus of the Pixies’ ‘Where is my Mind?’ as Arabic chanting haunts the background.
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Opening track ‘Bamboo Banger’ is a staccato raga reimagination of The Modern Lovers track, and punk rock standard, ‘Roadrunner’. Clocking in at nearly five minutes, it sees MIA drawl “I’m knocking on the doors of your hummer-ummer…and we’re moving with the packs of hyena-ena…when I’m dogging on the bonnet of your red Honda”. It’s a hypnotic beast of an opener, enough to immediately dismiss any hopes from XL that MIA has decided to become the Asian superstar she could so easily be.
Indeed, the only real pop moment, the soft, soaring ‘Paper Planes’, sabotages any FM potential by crafting its infectious chorus around three crystal clear gunshots. The song samples The Clash’s ‘Straight To Hell’, and through that provides the clearest indication of where she sees herself, as the inheritor of true rebel music in an era of corporate punks.
Throughout ‘Kala’, MIA is brave enough to look her detractors in the eye. She, more than anyone, is aware of the disparity between her duel roles of cosseted superstar and self-professed insurgent, but this is a contradiction she accepts blankly. “Up some jungle, up some tree/ one second, my phones ringing, it’s my friend Habibi” she spits on ‘Hussle’ while the African rapper Afrikan Boy she shares the song with announces: “You think its tough now? Come to Africa”. Though she may invoke the spirit of Joe Strummer, her closest comparisons are blacker. The mega-rich American hip-hop stars whose wealth separates them from their background, but whose focus never leaves the ghetto struggle, or even the African superstars of the ‘70s like Fela Kuti, whose success transformed him into a glorious mash-up of James Brown and Nelson Mandela.
MIA’s skills don’t necessarily lie in her singing, rapping or lyrics, rather the clarity of her vision. ‘Down River’, for example, flows gloriously with didgeridoo and a gang of aboriginal child beatboxers, only bursting its banks when MIA’s monosyllabic vocals appear. But who else would have to guts, or imagination to dream up such a song in the first place? Maya Arulpragasam’s disabilities are irrelevant when she is hunting so far ahead of the global pack.
Rumour has it that this will be her final album, and that she will turn her attention to cinema. This will surely please her narrow-minded detractors, but in time they will realise how lucky they were to share a world with an artist bold and arrogant enough to concoct such a vicious and complex oeuvre as she has done.
‘Kaya’ is the masterpiece of this collection. More than just a clash of east and west, it throws every micro-culture into confusion. Whether you were born in Hackney, Columbo, LA or Lagos it’s an album which subverts the familiar with the alien. Immigrant beats twist alt-rock standards and tourist rhythms shake basement basslines. There is no target audience beyond mankind itself. Like watching 400 global news channels simultaneously, this is a bewildering three dimensional picture of the 21st century and a triumph for its revolutionary creator. MIA: the screaming voice of planet Earth.