1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die
Getting turned away at the border was the best thing that could’ve happened for Mathangi “M.I.A.” Arulpragasm from both a fiscal and a quality perspective.
Fiscally, the experience gave her the firepower to write the hit single, “Paper Planes,” a track that would be listed on the playlist of the decade by multiple publications, including Rolling Stone. The rapper had been denied a visa for her extended stay in the United States because homeland security determined her family to be closely linked to the Tamil Tigers terrorist group (M.I.A., a Sri Lankan by birth, is a member of the Tamil minority, although connections to the organization proved false). She responded with “Paper Planes,” a satirical look at the American opinion of foreigners, which is rounded out by an incredibly catchy hook composed almost entirely of sound effects. The track would gain exposure through its use in movie trailers (“Pineapple Express” and “Slumdog Millionaire”) and its sampling by rappers like T.I. and Jay-Z.
Perhaps even more significant than the exposure of “Paper Planes,” the inability to get to the States may have dramatically altered the album’s production. She had hoped to work with established producer Timbaland, but ended up cutting only one track with him: “Come Around,” a song well versed by M.I.A. but featuring an awkward verse from the producer, leading to suspicions that his train of thought may have been on a different track than hers. Instead, she teamed with equally talented, if less renowned, British producers Switch and Diplo.
The most appealing part of “Kala” is its wide breadth of international influence in its beats. A majority of those influences are Sri Lankan and Indian, understandably. Most notable is the use of urumee, an hourglass shaped drum worn over the shoulder on singles “Bird Flu” and “Boyz.” “Hussel” features guest vocals from Brit by-way-of-Nigeria rapper Afrikan Boy, and “Mango Pickle Down River” is a remix M.I.A. did with an Aboriginal children’s rap group, The Wilcannia Mob, of its original song, “Down River,” (the didgeridoo played by one of the boys is positively sinister).
I’m sure it was stressful for her to fight U.S. customs agents, but overall M.I.A. got the better half of the deal: a hit single and the reassurance that Timbaland didn’t ruin her album.
INTERESTING FACT: Most music videos premier on MTV. "Bird Flu" premiered at the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival.