M.I.A. :: Arular
2005 will be remembered for a lot of things; mostly it will go down in history as the year that saw the worst of nature's wrath unleashed on the unsuspecting and unprepared. Musically, pop music ruled the airwaves and record stores - Mariah and Madonna topped record sales and critics' lists alike, proving naysayers wrong. The British indie wave continued with Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs finding success and faithful audiences, though both were beaten to the Mercury Music Prize by an obscure, Boy George-emulating New Yorker. Among the hotly tipped contenders for the Prize, which honors British music of the past year, was one Sri Lankan born hottie with a penchant for hip hop, ragga, dancehall and electro, a by-product of having been transplanted to the UK at a young, impressionable age. Arular is an exemplary taste of British Urban music, much like Dizzee Rascal's debut (a 2003 Mercury winner) two years before it.
Few albums in the past have been as controversial or as anticipated as Maya Arulpragasam's ("M.I.A." on wax) debut, and with good reason. Much has been made about M.I.A.'s political stance and pedigree (the title of the album is also her militant father's LTTE code name) and both are driving factors in her work. From the album's self designed artwork to the lyrics, everything she does is replete with tank, bomb, war and soldier imagery, as well as pointed references to the Tigers and the PLO. Anyway, enough about politics and on to the best album of 2005.
The album opens on the strength of a three pronged attack; "Pull Up The People", "Bucky Done Gun" and "Fire Fire". These tracks, each by a different producer, help M.I.A. shatter and resurrect the rules of World dance music. The overly polished production that plagues most current dance music is absent here. Boyfriend Diplo's sampling of the horns from the "Rocky Theme" and of Brazilian baile funk rhythms make "Bucky Done Gun" an instantly recognizable 21st century classic. Never has a song about war sounded so bubbly. Producer and remixer to the (pop)stars, Richard X, contributes tweaking duties to two of the strongest cuts; "Amazon" and "10 Dollar". The former's lyrics about being kidnapped and held for ransom has Maya pleading, "Hello, this is M.I.A. Could you please come get me?" "10 Dollar", with its throwback to the 80's electro/booty beat, chronicles the plight of a young Sri Lankan woman willing to do anything she can to escape her country.
"Sunshowers", "Galang" and hidden track "M.I.A." finish the album as strongly as the first three tracks started it. The sparse percussion on "Sunshowers" wraps up the intensely political, Jamaican-style toasting in a party vibe with what has to be the catchiest chorus on the album; "Sunshowers that fall on my troubles/Are over you my baby/And some showers I'll be aiming at you/Cos I'm watching you my baby..." "Galang" remains the standout cut on an album of great material. Originally released at the end of 2004 to a lukewarm reception, XL Recordings (also home to Dizzee, Basement Jaxx and the White Stripes) decided to re-release it a few months later. It became arguably the most talked about track of the year. With a brash mix of dancehall, ragga and electro-clash punctuated by electronic distortion, its underground following soon grew massive, in no small part thanks to its use in a Honda Civic commercial. Had the ultimate underdog sold out by licensing her track? Many still debate the issue, but all that matters to us is that "Galang" is the epitome of raw, dirty, dance music. Sweat drenched dancefloors from the UK to Brazil to New York are proof enough.
With rumors of Timbaland and Missy Elliott collaborations swirling around for her next outing, M.I.A.'s star doesn't seem likely to fade anytime soon. But this, her solo debut, will always be held in the highest esteem by dance music purists. M.I.A. is rough, energetic, fiercely unapologetic, and anti-establishment. That, coupled with sparse production, is the force behind which all modern music should be driven. Whatever comes after Arular will sadly be judged against it.