Rarely has a record been anticipated with as much hype as M.I.A.’s excellent debut Arular was before it was released in March. It was a little over a year before the record officially dropped when her first single “Galang” hit the internet, followed shortly thereafter by “Sunshowers”, and “Fire Fire”, and the web was buzzing with news of an exciting and original new voice.
Since then, much has been made, and rightly so, of Sri Lankan MC Maya Arulpragasam’s eclectic mix of styles, mashing together everything from dancehall to American hip hop, electronica, and Brazilian favela, as well as her mix of cultures from London party girl sass, Indian and Sri Lankan slang, to New York and Philadelphia tough. It’s a heady mix, and one that gives the notion of “World Music” a new and throughly postmodern relevance, that M.I.A. rocks with remarkable self-assurance.
Even more compelling, though, is her mix of theme and tone. Arulpragasm told Nirali Magazine that she “…wanted to see if [she] could write songs about something important and make it sound like nothing,” and it’s in this effort that her record succeeds most brilliantly and packs the biggest punch. It’s only on the 5th or 6th listen to the smooth, partying “Sunshowers”, that has you groovin’ along to “I bongo with my lingo/I beat it like a wing, yo”, before you notice that it’s about a man being executed for associating with Muslims, or catch lyrics like “like PLO I don’t surrender.” There’s as much violence on this CD as there is party, and there’s a lot of party.
While it seems like that kind of combo could be off-putting as recounted here in text — and the notion of dancing to songs about third world guerilla warfare, poverty and prostitution might seem a bit unappetizing — in M.I.A.’s sure hands it amounts to a kind of clear-headed, unencumbered realism; or a lack of squeamishness about what’s actually taking place in the world. There’s everything to be said about getting these issues into people’s ears who might never otherwise know, and Arular is just the right amount of unsettling to a comfortable American like me, who is, even as I type this review, consuming a $4.00 cup of coffee.
M.I.A. manages to work that one-two punch into a thoroughly engrossing sonic collage without even the barest hint of tiresome hand-wringing, which makes her songs feel topical in a straightforward, unsensational way, but not in the least bit brow-beatingly political.
Arular is infectious and relentlessly grooving, but more than that, it’s sharp, aesthetically interesting, and surprisingly addictive. Arulpragasam’s multi-cultural sensibility, intelligence, and intentional force as an artist are present in every beat. Her sexiness is not the manufactured, plastic sameness usually served up by the ladies of pop music, but something organic, and arising from her forthright individuality and the raw force of her self-possession.
From her remarkable biography (Arulpragasm is the daughter of a Sri Lankan militant Tamil leader who moved from Sri Lanka to India and back before landing in the notoriously racist council estates in Mitcham, Surrey at age 11, where she learned English) to the astonishing confidence of her free-wheeling mash-up of styles, cultures and “let’s just get on with it” attitude about the world’s troubles, there’s no denying that Maya Arulpragasam is, indeed, a fascinating new voice.
Arular is an impressive opening salvo.