After hearing just a few seconds of M.I.A.‘s “Sunshowers” during a show at last fall’s Olympus Fashion Week, I turned to Slant’s fashion columnist Alexa Camp and asked, “What the fuck is this?” It was quite unlike anything we’d heard before, a spare mix of stiff, booming beats, an early-‘80s retro hook, and an exotic, sneering vocal. Later that night, I googled the few lyrics I had managed to scribble down in Alexa’s notepad (“From the Congo/To Columbo/I salt and pepper my mango”) but to no avail. Message board queries proved fruitless as well. Unbeknownst to me then, the artist in question had been bubbling under for most of ‘04, popping up on Diplo’s Piracy Funds Backlash mixtape and piquing the interest of tastemakers here and abroad, first with the single “Galang” and then with the abovementioned mystery song.
M.I.A.‘s long-delayed debut, Arular (the political name given to her father, co-founder of a Tamil militant group in Sri Lanka), opens with the deceptively playful “Banana Skit,” in which M.I.A. demands, “Get yourself an education!” Despite her ticking time bomb collages of beats and infectious hooks (in and of themselves enough to pledge allegiance to the M.I.A. consortium), it would behoove even the casual hipster to educate themselves on the tumultuous history that informs much of the album. Born Maya Arulpragasam in London, M.I.A. bounced back and forth between the civil war-torn Sri Lanka and India before settling in the projects of South London and discovering—and learning English via—hip-hop music. While filming a tour documentary, Canadian electro-rapper Peaches introduced Maya to a Roland groovebox, with which Maya frantically wrote most of Arular, and the rest is, as they say, history. Flash-forward to reactions like mine at a runway show and you’ve got the critical darling of ‘05.
Arular is the sonic and lyrical embodiment of the cover of Missy’s military-styled but otherwise apolitical This Is Not A Test!, but violence isn’t just glorified here—like American hip-hop artists before her, Maya’s life has been one of constant struggle and she’s just telling us what she sees. “I’m a solider,” she says on “Pull Up The People.” “I’m armed and I’m equal,” she declares amid a sample of the Rocky theme on the very next track, “Bucky Done Gun.” Maya’s message is one of peace, but instead of turning her bombs into plowshares, she turns them into beats: “I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang bang bang.” The subject matter is often sobering but she isn’t trying to ruin your high.
Maya leaps from hip-hop (“Fire Fire”) to dancehall (“Bingo”) to ‘80s freestyle (“Bucky Done Gun”) to slutty genius (“Hombre”) all within the first few tracks of the album without batting an eye. She name-drops her broad influences (Missy and Timbaland on “Fire Fire,” The Clash and Jimi Hendrix on “Galang”), but her sound is one of a revolutionary, not a follower. Tracks like “Pull Up The People” and the indigenous-sounding “Amazon,” in which she pleads to be kidnapped, feature some hectic programming, including eccentric vocal samples (“aww-ah!”) that will likely become an M.I.A. trademark. It’s easy to diagnose Maya’s outlandish tech-hip-pop as World Music, that ever blurry wasteland of a category bookended by The Tao of Pooh and any one of Deepak Chopra’s many self-help books, but Arular is a head-turning, head-bopping album that defies even that sweeping genre.