As 2007 winds down, it's about that time to reflect on this year's releases and separate the true contenders for a "best of" list from those that simply attained mediocrity. I've got my sure picks: Bloc Party's A Weekend In The City brought just the right emotional depth and busy guitar energy to an otherwise bleak winter; Little Brother's Getback was a nice dose of conscious rap to temper the onslaught of Soulja Boy we received with autumn; and of course the revolutionary release of Radiohead's In Rainbows was a pleasant surprise, although I think the hype surrounding the pay-as-you-will pricing structure has unfortunately overshadowed the quality of the album itself.
And then there are those releases mired in doubt: Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was certainly upbeat, catchy, and a soundtrack to good times in the summer -- but does it have the replay value to last through this time next year? Jay-Z dropped the epic American Gangster LP this week - -another nice reminder that sheer talent does indeed exist in rap music -- but is it really a classic album or mere movie tie-in? And then there's that one record that I've been poring over since its release, unable to really pin down, M.I.A.'s Kala.
Listeners of her previous record Arular could very well be split on this latest release. It has the hip-hop sensibility to retain the fans for whom that aspect is the most accessible and the production work on the record is as solid as ever, despite an absence from underground producer Diplo. But this is a Twister mat of a record culturally speaking, traveling above and beyond the status quo for heterogeneity in popular Western music. Where previously reggae inflection or Latin rhythm would have sufficed as "ethnic," Kala delves deeper into African, Bollywood and even aboriginal Australian influence. It's certainly an interesting composition and it's admirable, but will the fans embrace it?
Apparently so. I went to see the Sri Lankan/British singer at New York's Terminal 5 a few weeks ago. Opening act Cool Kids (a Chicago rap duo heavy on retro style) received a somewhat lukewarm response -- the people were there solely for M.I.A. And she didn't disappoint, with a steamrolling set that included cuts from the new album as well as her breakout single "Galang".
Something struck me, though, as I stood in the crowd and watched the writhing 20-somethings around me dancing to the deafening beats. We've truly arrived in modern times when 5,000 middle-class, mostly white American youth will gladly pay $25.00 to see a South Asian girl from London sing about anti-globalization and Tamil autonomy. Sure, it took a familiar template in dance and electronica along with a distinctly hip-hop tinge to attract an audience, but at the end of the day all that matters is whether the message has gotten across. It seems to have.
While I take some of M.I.A.'s more militant themes with a grain of salt (there is a certain irony in hearing the lyrics "All I want to do... is take your money" at a decidedly anti-pop sort of event) it wasn't lost on me that perhaps we're turning the corner musically and culturally towards accepting the rest of the world as an entertaining possibility. Towards the end of the set, Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy was brought on stage to perform his cameo in the song "Hussel." As M.I.A. explained that this was his first evening on United States soil, an earnestly congratulatory roar erupted from the audience. It felt great. And looking back on it now, I realize that this moment in itself was proof enough that Kala deserves a spot in my Best of 2007.