Album Reviews

M.I.A. – Arular

(XL) UK release date: 18 April 2005

M.I.A. - Arular Things have moved on since the Mercury Prize winner Ms Dynamite took the black urban queen trinkets some years ago, seemingly promising everything but delivering nothing since. Enter into the ring MIA, aka Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, a Sri Lankan Londoner touting herself as a feisty musical freedom fighter. What could be damp record company rhetoric proves this debut to be an audio firecracker thrown into a stagnant music scene to sting the ears and bruise the booty.

Fuelled by her past and encouraged by labelmate Peaches, these original beatbox demos were fleshed out by producers including Pulp‘s Steve Mackay and Richard X. With them MIA creates an urgent, irresistible psychedelic plunderphonic approach to sounds and breaks that calls to mind Missy Elliott/Timbaland (for sheer musical experimentation) Jamaican toasters and even fellow UK compadres Estelle and Shystie and ‘grime’ stars Wiley and Dizzee Rascal. Even the title itself was her fathers’ code name from his time in the militant Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. Truly, Guerilla girl takes a trip.

Arular is an explosive album that tears through genres like they were postcards from a globetrotter including dancehall, electro-ragga (Bucky Done Gun), bhangra, hip hop, Tex-Mex (Hombre) and nursery rhymes (Amazon). It’s this seemingly random approach to the mismatch of stripped down beats, horny vocal splurges and sheer oddity that keeps luring in the ear for more tastes from the audio soup before sticking the molotov in.

Pull Up To The People is an opening salvo of intent, as MIA busks over skittering beats, squelches and deep bass drops in a pocket-sized tale of terrorist emancipation. Bucky Done Gun bounces into the ring in a blast of low-fi electro breaks and cut-up triumphal horns last heard on boxing matches, or some colonial march. She is, as she says, “armed and equal, more fun for the people”. Autistic lyrics could be in part idiot savant, or just plain idiot, but there’s no denying her flow, energy or intention. Louder than bombs, and twice as fierce.

The sweetly cooing Sunshowers slinks its way into the party on a blagged bhangra/urban crossover invite with a street bump and rhyme, with a subversive message lurking in the seeming innocence of terrorism and revenge. Take a line like “quit beating me like you’re Ringo” which plays domestic violence with sly pop references and it’s nothing short of genius.

Flames are truly lit on Fire Fire (sorry) name-checking Missy/Timbaland rolling deep and taking pot shots at “competition coming up…load up, fire, fire, pop”.Hombre’s bi-lingual mesh of ‘Spanglish’ is a sleazy call to arms that would send most men running for the hills over a pop-bursting fizz of deep voodoo. Amazon’s simplicity of seeming relationship abduction (“I was missing in action on the side of a carton”) is a many-layered beast that unfurls its colours over the course of the track, over jungle staccato rhymes, rolling backing chants, street-suss and homesickness.10 Dollar pushes the electro-chant button to the max and mixes smart girls prostituting (‘need some money? Paid him with a knees-up’) with mail order brides (‘she’ll kill you like Uma’).

Closing with possibly one of the best tracks Galang, which takes a monstrous mech beat, sprinkles it with playful party chants and leaves you infected and gasping.

Riding the beats like a cowgirl savage with an ear for the melody, musically there is no real comparison. The beats excite in a primitive way buried deep within our monkey-ass past, and if that weren’t enough the elliptical lyrics beam political spotlights from the world stage to the domestic drama. One for the beast, one for the brain, adding up to a whole lot of trouble. Tribal (and global) nursery rhymes from a shiva diva.

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More on MIA
M.I.A. – Matangi
M.I.A. – Kala
M.I.A. – Arular