When Kala came out in August 2007, M.I.A. was more a provocateur than anything else. Her first album, 2005’s Arular, had been a critical success but didn’t quite reach the audience it seemed like it might, given how often you saw her name in print. She had the swagger of hip-hop but wasn’t a rapper. She had an incredible, border-blurring set of beats that were hard to imagine crowds actually dancing to. She was smart and exciting and pointed toward big questions in the casual way great pop sometimes can: Does radical politics have a place in art? Is borrowing from a culture you don’t belong to a compliment or theft? Squint and you saw Madonna. Squint again and you saw the Sex Pistols, all in the guise of a British Sri Lankan art student who mostly seemed to be having fun. Once asked if she had a point, she said she didn’t know—she usually just kinda made stuff up on the spot.
Not only was Kala a richer album, it penetrated the culture in wider, deeper ways. One of its songs, “Boyz,” which featured thirty-something drummers playing an ancient South Indian instrument called the urumi, ended up soundtracking that year’s edition of Sony’s NBA video game series for PlayStation. Another, “Paper Planes,” which sampled a late-period Clash song and made subtle mockery of Western xenophobia, played over the trailer for the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, which turned out to be one of the better-grossing movies of 2008. By the end of the year, Kanye West had sampled “Paper Planes” for the posse track “Swagga Like Us,” which was later nominated for a Grammy. This was confrontational, adventurous music that distilled Public Enemy, punk rock, and club sounds from across the developing world into something both complex and immediately enjoyable—and now it was in the ears of American teens.
Looking back 15 years later, it still feels like an incredibly prescient, lively vision of Global Pop: something true to its various roots and influences, but which can nevertheless be understood anywhere. Drake cherry-picking from South African house music, the omnivorous sounds of artists like ROSALÍA and Burna Boy, the melding of American hip-hop with club sounds from Colombia and the Caribbean: We know these moves now, but M.I.A. was onto them early.
Calypso, Dancehall, and the Citizen Reporter
Part of Kala’s appeal is that M.I.A. seemed less like a musician than an interesting person traveling the world and sharing what she saw: raves in London (“XR2”) and cyphers in the Outback (“Mango Pickle Down River”), street life in Trinidad (“Boyz”) and drum circles in India (“BirdFlu”). She was part of her surroundings—at least, she paid genuine attention to them—but also apart from them, a perpetual outsider whose naivete gave her a vibrancy you tend to lose when you stay too long or learn too much. You could trace her back to Chuck D’s idea of rap as the “Black CNN”—local, observational, informal—but also to the calypso singer Lord Kitchener’s stories of immigrant life in London, or early dancehall deejays like Big Youth and Dr. Alimantado, whose man-on-the-street snapshots of Jamaica brought listeners into worlds that tended to lie outside the camera’s lens. As M.I.A. put it on “20 Dollar,” “I put people on the map that never seen a map.”
A Modern Take on Hip-Hop’s Sample Culture
M.I.A. once described Kala as a marble cake, each song a cross-section of the sounds and styles she’d absorbed along the way. It’s a good metaphor. Not only does it capture the cultural swirl of the digital era (a little of this, a little of that, everything at your fingertips), it captures the architecture of Kala’s sound: a vibrant, contrasting, fully modern take on the sample-based clash of early hip-hop. Pirate music, guerrilla music. To the extent you could call her an optimist, it’s in the idea that she could bring together all her disparate influences—Black, white, first-, second-, or third-world—and have them stand on equal footing. And like the supersaturated mixes of 2000s artists like DJ /rupture or Girl Talk—the sound of hyperlinks on hyperlinks—you get the glimpse of something utopian: In Kala, the power goes to the people, especially the ones making do with what they have.
The Eclectic Primitivism of The Clash
Diplo sampling The Clash for “Paper Planes” (1982’s “Straight to Hell”) wasn’t just a good pull, it told you where M.I.A. was coming from. Like The Clash, she seemed like someone who could walk into a club anywhere on earth and seem cool. But she was also an avowed non-musician whose attitude had more in common with the primitivism of punk than the finesse of pop. (The vocal for “Paper Planes” was, by her own account, recorded in an offhand moment before brushing her teeth—an unusual pedigree for a multiplatinum single.) The connection has more to do with politics than style. Where The Clash used reggae, disco, and gospel on albums like Sandinista! to connect punk with a broader world of working-class music (reggae and punk having an especially tight connection in England, where white dockworkers mixed with their Trinidadian and West Indian peers), M.I.A. handled hip-hop and club music as just another extension of the fiddle reels and folk dances that have kept ordinary people entertained for centuries. Plus, the ideas land harder when you can sing along.
Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and Minimalist Mainstream Hip-Hop
M.I.A. initially planned to start Kala in Virginia with producer Timbaland, before running into the visa troubles that set her on the odyssey the album became. You get it. Along with Missy Elliott, Timbaland helped turn mainstream hip-hop into something more like a Looney Tunes cartoon: absurd but minimal, a masterpiece drawn in a few beats. They were serious about their art but not intellectual about it. And like M.I.A., they drew on sounds and styles that lay way outside of what anyone assumed hip-hop could be. Most of all, you sensed the fun they had in putting things together that shouldn’t have worked but did—the same joyful experiments that make Kala great.
In 2007, the idea of cherry-picking sounds from around the world to make something like pop music was unusual. Now, it’s routine. Not only are English-language stars like Drake giving platforms to African producers like Black Coffee, artists like Bad Bunny are making pan-Latin hip-hop entirely in Spanish and still going multiplatinum in the United States—a reflection of changing demographics, but also changing tastes. Kala may have borrowed its eclecticism in part from The Clash, but it also forecast the increasingly borderless exchange of pop music now: “Hands up/Guns out/Represent that world town.”
Hip-Hop as Global Export
M.I.A. once said someone told her “BirdFlu” would clear the dance floor. The beat was too weird, at least for anyone outside Southeast Asia. But while Kala managed to incorporate global influences into what was effectively Western pop, it also came at the front of a wave of international dance music that combined the attitude and feel of hip-hop with more regionally specific sounds: batida in Lisbon, gqom in Durban, digital cumbia in Colombia and Peru. It’s not that you can hear Kala in the music per se. But the album seemed to understand how important the globalization of hip-hop would be before most. And even better, it taught you how to listen for it.
Politics in the Club
It’s easy to think of club music as attractive, conciliatory stuff made to get people to dance. But in the same way house music rallied LGBTQ+ audiences in the ’80s and ’90s, Kala made space for artists—often women of color—whose music was as adventurous and confrontational as anything from the avant-garde: Moor Mother and DJ Haram’s 700 Bliss project, Charlotte Adigéry, aya, Loraine James—even so-called hyperpop artists like SOPHIE felt like they were swimming in Kala’s wake. It’s an intellectual connection, but also a visceral one: If dancing can be liberating, you might as well throw in the politics to match.
Death Grips and the New Extremity
There are moments in the chants, squawks, and near-continuous bass of Kala where it seems like M.I.A. cared less about attracting audiences than overwhelming them. And in a way, she did. Describing the album’s approach, she said the key to making art at the time was to take your perspective to the extreme—an attitude that reflected her politics, but also a cultural landscape so crowded with choices that only extremity could cut through. Anyone who listens to metal or noise will recognize the approach. Kala wasn’t quite so confrontational. But it did help build a bridge between ’80s artists like Public Enemy and a younger generation exploring the noisier, more chaotic fringes of hip-hop: Death Grips, JPEGMAFIA, Rico Nasty. Rough stuff, yes. But like Kala, the underlying spirit is joyful: the sound of normalcy, breaking down.