Aural Pleasure

It’s dark in Detroit: The Go ride a haunted beat ontheir newest release.

M.I.A. is a graffiti artist, video director, activist, and acclaimed rapper/singer, but the Sri Lankan Brit might also qualify as her own best critic. In the midst of the new tribal call-and-response anthem “Bird Flu,” she declares that she’s “making bombs with rubber bands.”

It’s a pretty fitting description for the way her 2005 debut album, Arular, took rinky-dink elements (a Roland MC-505 Groovebox and a vocal mic) and managed to rattle cages around the world.

Her sophomore release, Kala, is intermittently more expansive, but at its core this is still skeletal music with an international scope. M.I.A. possesses neither a smooth rapping flow nor a conventional singing voice and her music is all about primal beats designed for schoolyard chants. Through the power of her self-possession and her grand vision, however, she makes world music that’s of the moment: playful, political, and brimming with pop’s urgency to be heard.

When she quotes Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” for the opening “Bamboo Batanga,” or samples the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” for “Paper Planes,” it makes just as much sense as when she turns “Jimmy,” an odd tale of unrequited love on a “genocide tour” of Rwanda and Darfur, into a lush Bollywood disco number. When she’s tackling hip-hop, as with “Mango Pickle Down River,” she makes familiar beats seem strange and unpredictable. Conversely, when she uses world rhythms that are exotic to Western ears, her buoyant charisma carries you along for the tour.

With Kala, M.I.A. has added to her collection of rubber bands, and she’s still making bombs.

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