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M.I.A. - Arular

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Artist: M.I.A.

Album: Arular

Label: XL

Review date: Feb. 7, 2005

By now, the word about M.I.A. has reached a fever pitch. Every major magazine has signed on for a feature, the blogosphere is aflame, industry insiders are agape and hot DJs from Miami to Seattle have been caning her beats for months. All that is left, it seems, is to sit back and watch if M.I.A. is accepted or rejected by the mainstream American public.

If this is your first encounter with M.I.A., let's have a summary. She's a Tamil (a Sri Lankan minority), and her father is an outlaw freedom fighter (named "Arular"). She's a gifted visual artist but was versed in music via N.W.A. (as a child), then Peaches (on tour in 2002), and now producers like Richard X and Pulp's Steve Mackey. Her real name is Maya Arulpragasam, her lyrics can be incendiary, and she's pretty fine looking, too.

What's more remarkable than her fascinating biography is her bold music. Like her life story, there's hardly anything like it. Roughed out on a Roland MC 505, it's basic and bombastic and bomb-tastic. When polished by producers, it burns clubs down. It's a blaring, drum-machine driven mish-mash of, well, all sorts of shit: dancehall, Asian beat, old school hip hop, baile funk and grime. It's music from the Gulf of Mexico, the Bay of Bengal and the North Sea. Or, better, it's Ragga meets Ghettotech meets Bollywood Breaks. It's the kind of cultural cornucopia that could be, and should be, the defining sound of 2005. But will it? (Honestly, it is becoming hard to wait.)

Arular is framed by three strong singles. The No. 1 best being "Sunshowers,” which contains her best lyrics, as in the oft-referenced line "Like PLO we don't surrendo!" The chorus is taken from the candydelic disco of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (brilliant stroke, that), so it has a real pop flavor that has crossover written in calligraphy. The beat, minimal like Missy and Lumidee, serves to spotlight her wordplay.

The brutal and bounding “Galang” was the official 12" and the track that raised the eyebrows of Europe, all dip this and dip that. It's hot but the coda might be the defining sound of M.I.A., a truly transporting yell from the streets of Sri Lanka.

And then the garish "Bucky Done Gun” – with a horn break seemingly straight from the mind of Gonzales – drops a tight (Richard X?) electro-funk beat any group of women would find hard to resist. The sick vocal edits near the end make you wonder "Why didn't they do that more often?"

Remove the three skits (which are really intimate demos) from the track listing and that leaves you with 7 more songs. As a result of MIA's singular composing computer, each entry generally keeps the same beat and tempo. It's forgivable to a degree because M.I.A.'s neophyte approach gives her music a novelty not unlike Madonna. M.I.A. shares some of Ciccone's same lyrical attitude and timing too – like the way "Like A Virgin" was as radical then as "I Bongo With My Lingo" might be today. Madonna's eponymous debut also had strong singles, a confrontational attitude and the best producers of its time.

And also like Madonna, M.I.A. has timed her debut not just to the cycle of sound, but to the clock of fashion as well. Her commitment to a conscience chic, both lyrical (particularly on "Sunshowers,” when she calls out sweatshops) and in her own look, is bound to bring imitators. M.I.A.'s femininity updates Madonna's distinct independence with a defined strength. "Hombre,” the one song dedicated entirely to seduction, is emblematic of her impudence: she pursues a man, dares him to come on to her, defies him to take her number – and when the magnificent shouting break/chorus takes hold, it's nearly impossible not to imagine the rally call of an army.

With regards to sequencing of the album, it seems to be chronological, with the two big singles ("Sunshowers" "Galang") at the end, as if to say there's more to M.I.A. than "Galang.” It's also worth noting the eponymous "M.I.A." is buried as a hidden track at the end. Perhaps because it's filled with polemics like the first verse: "You can watch TV and watch the media / President Bush doing takeovah" and later: "The trendsetters make things better / Don't sell out to be product pushers." Words to live by, really.

Concerning her success in the States, the reality is there’s little chance M.I.A. will crack a chart. Her music is too diverse to fit within any genre. Jessica Simpson wears a cross, M.I.A. wears an M16. Mrs. Federline is quick to put on a latex bodysuit, Ms. Arulpragasam has a proclivity to wear friend-made fashion. And I'd love to see Kelly Clarkson tackle a 505.

Point is, M.I.A. is a singular personality. The producers enlisted on her debut, and on Diplo's much-heralded Piracy Funds Terrorism mix, make her music better, but it's still designed by a refugee. The themes are broad, not boring. Her references are valid, not vapid. In a land where morning show DJs harass South Asian operators as "rat-eaters,” can M.I.A. break through? Can a chorus that speaks as a kidnap victim ("Amazon") speak to a cheerleader in Wichita, Kansas?

Alternately, there is hope in M.I.A.'s culture-striding themes, that sound and attitude could collect a considerable audience. And while the album is not as strong as to initiate a paradigm shift, Arulpragasam’s will might be. Even her strident lyrics could be mistaken as gibberish by corporate music directors and make it past the cultural censors.

Although "it's a bomb yo / so run, yo / put away your stupid gun, yo" is pretty obvious. In fact, after listening to Arular in it's entirety, impressionable types nationwide could get a little radical: imagine halftime pep squads kicking over trash cans at center court. Could happen.

By David Day

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