M.I.A.’s New LP May Be Smoother — But Her Words Are No Less Controversial

Outspoken singer's U.S. visa problems are cleared up — for the moment ...

For the better part of a year, Maya Arulpragasam (a.k.a. M.I.A.) was locked out of the U.S. The Department of State never gave an official reason for denying her a visa, but it probably doesn’t help that A) she’s never shied away from voicing her political beliefs, and B) her father is a founding member of a militant rebel group in his homeland of Sri Lanka.

So it was a bit of a shock when she was suddenly allowed into the country last month for a short tour in support of her upcoming album, Kala (due August 21). Of course, we’ll see how long that lasts, especially given the jokes she tends to make — like the one she cracked when asked about her song “20 Dollar,” which co-opts the chorus from the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”

“It’s a song about Liberia,” she told MTV News, “and I felt like it really represented [that country] at the time I was there. I always thought that if I was ever to strap myself up with some bombs and blow anything up, it’d be credit card companies, or the student loans buildings.”

She may be joking — kinda — but it’s evident that M.I.A. is not one to back down from a confrontation, whether you’re asking her about her battles with the Department of State (“It’s kind of crazy not to have that freedom … but my whole life has been like that. They’re just lucky I have the stamina to put up with that sh–”) or the emotional turmoil she experienced while making Kala.

“If you make an album, it should be like a film, it should be a contained thing,” she said. “And I think just because of circumstances and what I was going through in my life, it turned out like that. I went deeper and deeper with it, because I was just out there on my own. I was like, ‘I’m just free-falling into the planet, and there’s no one there.’ But that made me fall into my record, and scrape the bottom of it, and show something else.”

“Something else” it is. Kala is more worldly and eclectic than its predecessor, the critically adored Arular (see “Her Name May Be M.I.A., But Her Career Is Anything But” ), yet it also manages to be a more cohesive listen. And though M.I.A.’s lyrics seldom get much deeper than, “How many tequilas in the place?/ How many beers are in the case?” the album is clearly a deeply personal one — decidedly more feminine (it’s named after her mother), influenced by the sounds and sights of the third world, and dealing with politics both sexual and global.

If you want further proof of this point, just dare to suggest — as several journalists have done over the past few months — that her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Florida DJ Diplo, is responsible for much of Kala. Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.

“The idea is that I just kind of sit in some mansion, filing my nails, like, ‘Uh, OK, I’m ready to come out of my boarding-school mansion and talk some politics,’ ” she bristled. “It doesn’t really work like that. And I’m pissed off! Because as an artist, I definitely had the case of life imitating art. With Arular, I had some stuff to say about stuff that was confusing in my life at that time. But this time, it was really important for me to work that out in my own space without people saying it’s man-made, or there’s some sort of mastermind behind it. Which is why I’m sort of ‘Raaaar!’ about it. But also, I’m sort of over it.”

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