I have a love/hate relationship with sampling. It can be ingenious, recontextualizing sounds from records we know into something completely original.
DJ Shadow’s “Lost And Found” used the urgent, instantly recognizable drums from U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as the backbone of a laid-back trip hop classic. Kanye West has established himself as one of the most consistently innovative samplers around, looping The Doors’ “Five To One” for Jay-Z’s Nas diss “The Takeover” or The Main Ingredient’s “Let Me Prove My Love to You” for Alicia Keys’ gorgeous modern pop classic “You Don’t Know My Name”. Madlib has become one of the most influential producers in history with beats that are constructed entirely of samples so obscure that he doesn’t even clear them.
There’s a fine line between creativity and theft, though, and sampling can come across as lazy or deceptive. We’re all familiar with Sean Puffy Combs’ late-90’s reign of terror during which he scalped everyone from The Police to Enya in his pursuit of world domination. But loving a song only to find out it’s largely ripped off from someone else can feel like a betrayal.
I grew up a huge fan of Janet Jackson until I flipped over to the oldies station and realized that almost all of her best songs were swiped from Sly Stone and The Supremes. “Crazy In Love” was one of my favorites before I found out Beyonce was just singing new lyrics over The Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman”. And though I gave Kanye credit above, his Daft Punk-sampling single “Stronger” is one of the most phoned-in performances of his career (thankfully it’s the weakest track on the record).
That being said, my favorite song and album of the long hot summer of 2007 were among the strongest arguments yet for the virtues of sampling. UGK and Outkast’s “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)” is the most soaring, joyous song I’ve heard in a long time. Like 2005’s similarly blissful “Stay Fly”, the Three 6 Mafia-produced track begins with a sample by underrated soul legend Willie Hutch but creates something thrillingly new by pairing it with a thunderous beat and some of the world’s greatest MCs. It kicks off with the strongest entry yet in Andre 3000’s recent return to rapping as he promises to have “your back like chiroprac.”
But not to be upstaged, UGK’s Bun B and Pimp C launch into a blistering showcase of verbal dexterity that solidifies their reputation as one of the best tag teams in hip hop, or as they put it, “the truth and not a fable.”
M.I.A.’s sophomore album Kala has gotten a lot of press attention (equating to surprisingly strong sales), but nobody has fully pegged just how incredibly diverse and exciting a record it is. Kala is perhaps the most international, multicultural pop album in history to the point that the dancehall/favela/reggaeton fusion of her universally acclaimed debut Arular now seems quaint and constricted in comparison.
No track covers the same ground as the one before it; in fact, no track stays on the same continent as the one before it. The pummeling tribal drums that drive “Bird Flu” – so named according to M.I.A.’s blog “BECAUSE THIS BEAT GON KILL EVERYONE!” (her caps lock, not mine) – have little to do with the retro Bollywood disco of “Jimmy” or the Baltimore club pyrotechnics of “XR2”. Her lyrical skills have improved exponentially too, as evidenced by the skeletal “Hussel” and the playful Timbaland collabo “Come Around”.
But the two standouts on a record full of potential classics perfectly illustrate M.I.A.’s uncanny ability to string together elements from every genre of music to construct her own irresistible world party. On “20 Dollar” she takes the bass line of New Order’s “Blue Monday”, slaps it underneath a roaring industrial beat by Switch (who should become the hottest producer alive after his work on Kala) and then sings the chorus of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”, creating a cacophonous masterpiece.
And wait until you hear the surrealistic genius of “Paper Planes”, which is essentially a mashup of The Clash’s “Straight To Hell” and Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker”. It’s fitting that the strongest song on such a fantastic album has its roots in The Clash because in some strange way M.I.A. is their successor: fiercely political, ambitious, blue collar, fun-loving, globetrotting.
Sure, they were a British punk band and she’s a Sri Lankan rapper, but the ideas and attitude are the same. Kala is the 2007 version of the focused, tightened-up Sandanista! everyone has always wanted.
Scott Howard is a writer, artist and all-around media gadfly. Write him at
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