.I.A. could well be an ideal case study for examining the impact of the internet on the ways we listen to and, more importantly, are exposed to music. It’s difficult not to dip into Marshall McLuhan-esque “our-ever-shrinking-world” clichés when discussing the impact of the web on the way we live, but the truth of the matter is simply that it’s becoming—if it’s not already—the central mode of communication in the 21st Century.
Just over a year ago word began to spread, largely via the net, about an artist called M.I.A. who had a song called “Galang.” The first time I heard “Galang” was about an hour before the fifteenth time I heard “Galang.” That was roughly a year ago, and I’ve played the damn thing practically every day since. It really was that good.
A few months later came “Sunshowers,” a song that managed to sound like honey even while M.I.A. rapped (as much as Mike Skinner or Nellie McKay “rap”) about a man being gunned down for associating with Muslims. Together these two tracks ranked among the most exciting singles of last year, but you certainly weren’t going to see them on MTV or hear them on most radio stations, and unless you were lucky enough to have them magically appear in your mailbox, you were unlikely to track down tangible copies. On the other hand, anyone with a modem could easily find these songs through file-sharing networks, web boards, or mp3 blogs. (Folks, if this isn’t the utopian democratization of music, it’s about as close as we’re likely to get.)
After “Galang,” “Sunshowers” and the similarly superb “Fire Fire,” M.I.A.’s debut album couldn’t come out (or at least leak) soon enough, but the date kept being pushed back. First we were told September, then December. September passed, then December. Sample-clearance problems were mentioned. February was mentioned. Luckily in the meantime we got something of a teaser in the form of the mash-up mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, produced in collaboration with Diplo. And it wasn’t just any old teaser either, but rather a classic of sorts itself, and arguably the most successfully realized product to date of a musical form that’s flourished outside the bounds of touchy legality in the web era.
If you’ve already heard Piracy Funds Terrorism, Arular may prove to be a postmodern headfuck for a while, presenting as it does a unique listening challenge by recontextualising songs that we’re already intimately familiar with in genetically altered forms. It’s hard to comprehend that the versions presented here are the originals, that the likes of Ciara and Jay-Z should be rhyming over “Goodies” and “Big Pimpin’” instead of our favourite forthright and beautiful Sri Lankan MC.
Hearing "Amazon" and "Bingo" backed by something else would probably take more than just a few listens to get your head around if that something else didn’t work even better than Diplo’s inspired pairings. Arular seems like a perfect pop record, pure and simple, and one that—gushy fanboy hyperbole or not—I wouldn’t hesitate to mention in the same breath as Off the Wall and Dirty Mind. Like the initial hit of “Galang” it is, again, that good.
M.I.A., in her way, is as musically (if possibly not personally) idiosyncratic and captivating as Michael Jackson or Prince. Whether she strikes a fraction of the pay dirt that they have is yet to be seen, but she deserves to be huge, and her best weapon against marginalization is her music. On “Pull up the People,” the first full track on Arular, M.I.A. informs you that she’s got both “the bombs to make you blow” and “the beats to make you bang,” and it behooves you to take her at her word because the sonic impact reveals that she’s not kidding; within a few moments she will have compared herself to Rocky, and we shan’t have doubted her for a second.
As Sasha Frere-Jones noted in his piece on M.I.A. in The New Yorker, “‘world music’ is a category that does nobody any favors”. Despite the hard-to-resist tendency among journalists to wax exotic about the details of M.I.A.’s back-story (given name: Maya Arulpragasm; revolutionary father, whom the album is named for; moved from London to Sri Lanka to India to Sri Lanka to India to London—hell, if you don’t know the specifics by heart by now, just pick up the current issue of Spin), her sensibility is far more in tune with, say, Missy Elliot (who she namedrops) than Youssou N’dour (who she doesn’t).
Produced by a diverse cast including Steve Mackey, Ross Orton from Fat Truckers, Dave Taylor (AKA Solid Groove) and M.I.A. herself, Arular is a record that seeks to defy genre and nationality while at the same time reveling in both those things, being born directly of its heritage at the same time as it breaks free from it. It’s a swaggering, spitting, utterly contemporary album of politically dissident, sexually forthright Anglo-Sri Lankan dubstep bhangra hip-pop IDM in which M.I.A. stars as protagonist, antagonist, chanteuse, MC, exotic schoolgirl tease, graphic artist, chastiser of the immoral, and fun-loving London-living party girl. And all in under 40 minutes, too. It’s special. We’ve not heard it’s like before.
But something feels at stake here. M.I.A. is, in a sense, the first web-born (potential) pop star. The response to her music from a wider public not made up primarily of critics and music junkies could signify a changing of the guard, an expansion of the horizons of pop as we know it. Or, like Howard Dean’s much-hyped net-based presidential campaign, it could mean jack shit and four more years of Maroon 5. But I’m starting to regain some of my pre-election optimism. M.I.A. may be a critical darling, but she’s not so esoteric in the grand scheme of things. This is music that everyone can relate to, dance to, salt and pepper their mangoes to.
M.I.A.’s done what we’ve asked of her, and the press appear to be on board. Now it’s up to the
Reviewed by: Josh Timmermann
Reviewed on: 2005-02-24