“Yeah, I’m knocking on the doors of your Hummer, Hummer,” M.I.A. sneered on “Bamboo Banga,” the opening track of her sophomore album, Kala. The statement was as good a manifesto as any for the 2007 LP, which took themes of poverty, capitalism, ant-immigration, political unrest, gun violence and Third World culture and set them to an undeniable melange of woozy beats and cacophonous percussion.
Thirteen years ago today, on September 14, 2007, Kala was No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Albums chart, where it reigned in the top position for 19 weeks during 2007 and 2008. And rightfully so, with the era-defining album considered by many to be one of the decade’s best.
While the U.K.-born M.I.A. had originally intended to make the follow-up to her 2005 debut album Arular in the United States with Timbaland, her plans changed when was unable to obtain entry into the country because, she said in 2007, she was on a list of individuals who posed “a national threat to homeland security” as she “matched the identity of a terrorist.” (The visa denial was rumored to have been a result of her family’s connection to guerillas in their native Sri Lanka. As reported by The Daily Beast in 2018, “Her father was affiliated with the beginnings of the Tamil resistance against the injustices of the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka. But dire guerrilla tactics and unchecked violence became a mainstay of the insurgency led by the [resistance.])
So instead of Brooklyn or Los Angeles, the artist born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam went to India, Liberia, Trinidad, Jamaica and Australia, stops that forged Kala’s global, street-smart DNA and where she sourced much of the album’s hyphy, percussive elements. There was extensive use of South Asian percussion and homages to Bollywood, used in part as an homage to M.I.A.’s mother, who served as inspiration fo the LP.
“He was really into ideas and stuff like that and saving the planet and like revolution and blah blah blah,” she said of her father, who inspired her debut album Arular, in that same 2007 interview, “and my mom was the opposite. She was this kind of worked as this minimum wage sewing assistant and she put food on the table because she just wanted to save three people. And I thought that’s just as important.”
Critics called Kala world music, hip-hop, dance and pop, with these eclectic categorizations demonstrating that with the album, M.I.A. had essentially made something that didn’t really sound like anything else that came before it.
Coming just a few years ahead of dance music’s American takeover, Kala’s electronic elements were in fact on the bleeding edge of what was to come. But with its underground sensibility and outsider edge, Kala had little to do with the rising tide of EDM, fitting more into the blog house scene of the late 2000s, which was then also populated by acts like Justice, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk and Simian Mobile Disco.
The album also served as a launchpad for Switch and Diplo, who both wrote and produced tracks throughout Kala and who would debut their Major Lazer project the following year. Along with album guests including the London-based, Nigerian-born grime artist Afrikan Boy and Australia’s Indigenous hip-hop quartet The Wilcannia Mob, the duo helped forge the album’s global sensibility as they also picked up major inspiration from the woman at the center of the project.
“She was the game-changer,” Diplo told Billboard of M.I.A. this past March. “She understood the idea of brand like I had never seen. Even her label once told me that she was 10% music and 90% attitude. That was what sold.”
In fact, it did sell. Kala became one of the most successful albums of 2007, topping many best-of lists of that year and decade. Its enduring smash single “Paper Planes” was nominated for the Record Of the Year Grammy at the 2009 ceremony, where a very pregnant M.I.A. performed alongside Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I., who sampled the track on his hit “Swagga Like Us.” By that point, she had not only been able to secure a visa into the U.S., but through her boundary-pushing work, had secured a spot amidst the musical A-list.