In late 2003, “Galang”, the debut single by 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam, AKA M.I.A., was well-received by those who heard the small indie release, but it wasn’t until a few months later that word started to spread about the London artist of Sri Lankan descent, who, along with a budding career as a visual artist and as a musician, just happened to have a father who was a soldier in a Sri Lankan militant group. Internet denizens who frequented the burgeoning MP3 blogs online started downloading “Galang”, as the exponentially increasing word of mouth kicked in among music hipsters. For good reason, too; the song was irresistible, yet mysterious, with M.I.A. singing lines of ebullient dancehall slang (“Boys say wha gwan/ Girls say what wha?”) over a jarring beat and blaring Moog synths, the song concluding with a coda featuring a contagious vocal chant that sounded simultaneously jubilant and menacing.
Equally interesting was the follow-up “Sunshowers”, released in July 2004, which continued the fascinating contrast between playful and defiant (“I salt and pepper my mango/ Shoot spit at the window”). The accompanying video, filmed in a lush jungle setting, evoked Bollywood, but while M.I.A. was shown perched on an elephant, the song spoke of urban violence and anti-Muslim sentiment in the West. By the time the underground mix tape Piracy Funds Terrorism, a collection of reworkings of M.I.A.’s songs by her DJ Diplo, surfaced late in the year, a small cult of fans had formed among urban music listeners and indie rock geeks alike, something that did not escape the eye of the music press, who are always on the lookout for the next critics’ darling. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where the increasing media attention has come dangerously close to overkill, but now that M.I.A.’s highly anticipated full-length Arular is finally upon us, we can finally let the music do the talking. And frankly, all that’s left to say is, without hyperbole, she’s done it. Ms. Arulpragasam has delivered the best UK debut since Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner.
“I’ve got the bombs to make you blow/ I’ve got the beats to make you bang,” declares M.I.A. on “Pull Up the People”, the fiery, yet minimally arranged track that kicks of the album. That starkness, which runs through the entire CD, might initially seem to bear the influence of grime, but in actuality, it’s something completely different from the trendy garage beats of East London. A simple, low synth note rumbles and quavers, as if backing a Peaches song, the claps of a straightforward dancehall beat the only source of rhythm, and the odd metallic clank and synth twitter appears on the periphery every so often, as every few bars are punctuated by an enticing vocal sample, a two-note yelp that starts low, but ends quickly in a sharp, taut squeal. Compared to the sample-heavy Piracy Funds Terrorism, Arular sounds simple and minimal at first, but turns out to be surprisingly rich musically.
She might possess a vocal style that’s every bit as identifiable as that of Dizzee Rascal, but unlike young Dylan Mills, M.I.A.’s great strength is not in her lyrics, but in her music, which, despite the simplicity, is loaded with vocal hooks and melodies that carry each song, not to mention a musical backdrop that dips into various musical styles. It’s the classic case of a new artist lifting sounds from different genres in hope of creating something unique, but instead of producing a madly ambitious musical pastiche that tries to do everything at once, the influences are much more subtle. By the time the album ends, listeners are left remembering fleeting glimpses of hip hop (especially crunk), ragga, bhangra, reggaeton, ’80s electro, and even punk rock, everything assembled extremely well by producers Diplo, Richard X, Ross Orton (from Fat Truckers), and Pulp’s Steve Mackey.
At a surprisingly taut 38 minutes, M.I.A. wisely avoids the risk of sounding repetitive on Arular, and the end result is a record devoid of filler. “Bucky Done Gone” is built around a boisterous trumpet fanfare sample, as she shifts from her heavily accented, dancehall vocal inflections to the album’s only instant of straight-ahead rapping. “Fire Fire”, originally a B-side of “Sunshowers”, appears with its thunderous beats jacked up more than the original version, while “Amazon” has the most layered production on the album, as various percussion instruments and synth bleeps swirl gently around the mix, sounded like an insect-ridden rain forest. “Bingo” contains chimes of reggaeton style steel drum, which are offset by abrasive electro screeches, the sultry “Hombre” has a terrific, multilayered vocal hook, and “10 $”, arguably the most incessantly catchy track on the album, is propelled by M.I.A.’s versatile vocal performance, highlighted by her coy flourishes of, “Oh-oh oh-oh oh-oh hey hey.”
Much has been made about her political views, and the facts that militaristic imagery figures prominently on the album, and that Arular is named after her father’s nickname given to him by the guerilla rebel faction he co-founded in Sri Lanka (meaning “the ruler”), will undoubtedly have people wondering just what the lady’s agenda is with this album, but many will be surprised at just how tame her lyrics are. Images of war have always featured prominently in both her visual art and her music, but M.I.A. skillfully removes them from context, juxtaposing such jarring, violent images with depictions of Western pop culture. She pulls no punches, but her songs are not so much fanatical political rants, as blunt looks at what she’s lived with all her life, and how, in these war-ridden times, that surreal blend of pop culture and violence continues around all of us.
A fair amount of M.I.A.’s lyrics are little more than fun, nonsensical dancehall sing-alongs (“Galang” being the prime example), but there are moments where she elevates her songwriting to a higher level. “Fire Fire” and “Amazon” serve as the heart of the album; on “Fire Fire”, she depicts war-torn Sri Lanka during her young years (“Grown up, brewin up/Guerilla getting trained up”) before switching abruptly from the battleground to contemporary hip hop in a brilliant moment of wordplay: “Click suits and booted in the timberland/Freakin out to a Missy on a Timbaland.” “Amazon”, meanwhile, has her fantasizing about her own abduction (“Blindfolded under homemade lanterns/Somewhere in the Amazon, they’re holding me ransom”) pleading in the chorus, “Hello, this is M.I.A./ Could you please come and get me?” Placed between both songs is the short “Freedom Skit”, in which she refers to her missing “freedom fighting dad,” describing the Sri Lanka government “call[ing] him a terror/Put him on wanted ads”, her voice sounding frail and innocent. When you later hear her sing, “It’s okay you forgot me,” on “Amazon”, you get the feeling she’s achieved somewhat of a reconciliation with her past.
The best idea on Arular was to leave both “Galang” and “Sunshowers” to the end, allowing the newer tracks to show they’re more than able to hold op the first three quarters of the album. Still, those two songs, as well as the strong hidden track denouement “M.I.A.”, brings everything to a rousing climax, highlighted by the line, “You could be a follower, but who’s your leader/ Break that circle, it could kill ya.”
While it’s considerably more listener-friendly to North American mainstream ears than Dizzee Rascal and The Streets, whether or not mainstream audiences will warm up to the punchy yet enigmatic Arular, and make M.I.A. more than just a cult fave, remains to be seen. However, based on the strength of “Galang” and “Sunshowers”, the potential is there. It’s an accessible album, but one containing challenging contrasts. In the end, what’s most impressive is how Arulpragasam powerfully weaves a consistent theme of rootlessness throughout the record, drawing on her experiences in both the third world and modern London, from civil war to Western urban culture, and her own, highly unique, bastardized form of pop music is the extraordinary end result.