April 14, 2005

M.I.A.: Arular

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M.I.A.’s fantastic debut album Arular blisters with restless energy. But how did Maya Arulpragasam, the incredible 27-year old voice of London’s rising grime scene, ever go from exile to musician? It was hard enough to grow up in the aftermath of a bloody dispute of power during the mid-’80s in her native Sri Lanka. Raised in the South London projects after the battle became too oppressive, where her family was burglarized on a regular basis, life was better, but not by much. Arulpragasam’s mother worked for minimum wage, and eventually the family moved out of the Phipps Bridge projects into better housing. Her mother’s hard work paid off when Maya got the chance to realize her creativity, and she later graduated with a degree in film from Central St. Martins College of Arts and Design. While commissioned to make a documentary about the rock band Elastica’s tour, Arulpragasm managed to orient herself with the MC-505 Groovebox, which is a fool-proof, all-in-one drum set and synthesizer — an expressway to self-producing rough beats. The edge and flexibility of the Groovebox suited Maya’s personality well, and three years later we have the revolutionary debut album Arular, which appears under her assumed artistic personality, M.I.A. There’s a bit of experience behind tighter instrumentals from brilliant producers like Richard X and Anthony Whiting, but Arular is almost an entirely solo output. Even the artwork, a wallpaper of tanks, fists, peace symbols, loudspeakers and parachuting Blackhawk helicopters was designed by the same woman who wrote the lyrics, arranged the music and fights for “the people” as she lets us know in nearly every breath.

M.I.A.’s lyrics, including the way she introduces herself on the first true song (she does pepper the album with meaningless, but still enjoyable skits), paint her as a revolutionary, a guerrilla and usually as an independent and dominant female, but they also portray her enigmatic personality. She first sees herself as a voice of proletariat radicals: “Pull up the people, pull up the poor/ slang tan/ that’s the M.I.A. thang/ I’ve got the bombs/ yeah, me got God/ And me got you/ Bang bang bang.” She compares growing up to a “guerrilla getting trained up,” or as a “freedom fighter in action.” As an involuntary citizen of a country not her own, M.I.A. makes constant references to her inner refugee. She identifies with the Palestinians, the Cherokee Indians and she “screams for the nation.” M.I.A. is the self-proclaimed leader of the People’s Will, and achieving their goals usually comes with a price tag of violence. Murder is reduced to a courageous act: “Semi-9 and snipered him/ On that wall they posted him/ They cornered him and then just murdered him/ He had his way, I’m bored of him/ I’m tired of him” she reflects without an ounce of regret.

If she’s not angry at what obviously becomes the Establishment, sometimes in the form of masculinity, she’s playing to our lustful sides. It’s a bit confusing to hear M.I.A. switch without warning from assertive to innocent. “Let you be superior/ My stamina can take it/ You like me vulnerable,” she says in between songs about “clocking him.” The pattern of these lyrical changes becomes obvious after a few listens — if you bring men in with promises of submissiveness and sexuality, you then can pounce once they try to “check this girl.” She’s got us under her thumb, and isn’t afraid to push down — it’s all “for the sake of having fun.”

Musically, M.I.A. is the prototype of an emerging genre, grime. Somewhere in between American crunk and Jamaican dancehall, grime combines elements that we mostly associate with cell phone rings. There are beeps, buzzes, high-pitched screams and an assortment of other rather atonal implements. Besides these staccatos, the only other production element is usually a super-electronic basic drum set, except the cymbals are muted, the high-hat is a constant nuisance and the bass sets an incredibly punched, heart-racing tempo.

M.I.A. soothes some of the corners in grime’s roughness. They are often, however, tools to invoke images of her guerrilla anger. On “Bucky Done Gun” there are battle-crying bugles and the chorus uses a snare drum to sound like a popping machine gun. Sometimes effects are picked right out of old arcade games with firing shooters and B-52 bombers. “Bingo” has a melodically important steel drum, and other percussion including glockenspiels and bongos are used.

One of the best reasons to listen to a grime voice like M.I.A.’s is simply the way she talks. The accent is thick with the bitterness of rough, outer London neighborhoods like Swansea and Bow. The dialect is a language all it’s own with words like “galang” and “wha-gawn” spliced into Jamaican half-rhymes and revolutionary buzzwords. M.I.A. has a tendency to scream or at least raise the pitch at the end of every line. In addition to raising hairs and heartbeats, this brutally forces her message home every time. This is clearly someone who has a lot to say. It’s gritty, funny, honest and inspiring — in other words, perfect.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer