Out of all the landmark quotations associated with rap music, the one that continues to resonate — the one that haunts like a wraith of responsibility — is Chuck D’s famous claim that “rap is the CNN of the streets.” True enough, when Chuck fronted Public Enemy and released albums like It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, scholars treated “Welcome to the Terrordome” and “Rebel Without a Pause” as scions of a musical rebellion birthed by James Brown and Grandmaster Flash.
It’s fifteen years later, and captivating political upheavals and shocking revolutions don’t really happen in America. Instead, members of the most privileged country in the world watch as young radicals take up the tools of revolution in places like Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan-born, London-bred child of Tamil warriors, M.I.A. is, in no uncertain terms, a revolutionary. She is Huey Newton; she is Michael Collins. And her debut album, Arular, is a ferocious hour of bhangra wails scrambled with vintage electronics. In one fell swoop, she harnesses the palettes of Kraftwerk, Ice Cube and Gang of Four and uses each of their strengths to achieve her own gains.
To fully appreciate the power of Arular, some biography is necessary. M.I.A. (real name Maya Arulpragasam) is part of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Her father fought as one of the infamous Tamil Tiger insurgents against the Sinhalese majority during the Sri Lankan civil war. After their home was destroyed and assassination attempts were made on her family’s lives, Maya and the Arulpragasams moved to London in 1986. Raised in the east London projects, she honed her English on classic American hip hop. Around the same time she graduated art school, news of her cousin’s death in the war reached London. Armed with a camera and Jay-Z CDs, she returned home, intending to document the disenfranchised Tamil youth. She ended up shooting an acclaimed film series as she travelled through villages, sharing rap music with teenagers who had no real youth culture of their own.
A few years later, inspired by this collision of cultures, M.I.A. began mashing up Bollywood sounds with Jamaican dancehall tracks and adding her own digital signatures. Frustrated with other female MCs, she wrote songs for what would become her bootleg, Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1. Her clever theft of mainstream rap arrangements, such as Lil Jon’s beat from “Goodies” and the Neptunes’ “Clap That Boy,” meshed well with her English/Tamil raps, creating near hysterical Internet buzz for Arular. The album doesn’t merely justify the months of slavish anticipation; it’s bold enough and important enough to wipe the pop music slate almost completely clean.
Take “Bucky Done Gun”: What begins as a hypnotic, silky loop of bleeps and sirens becomes police-state-dancehall: “They comin’ through the window / They comin’ through the door / They bustin’ down the big wall / And soundin’ the horn.” For listeners ignorant enough to dismiss her lyrics, there’s a squealing dance track. Those willing to pick apart M.I.A’s accented words (and you’ll want to pay attention) will find a visceral manifesto of life under violence. Not G-Unit violence — real, Doctors-Without-Borders violence.
M.I.A. is a genius when it comes to juxtaposing melodies and subject matter. “10 $” could be just another club-feminism song, but listen again: Behind the cascading Atari squeals, she’s talking about getting out of a war zone any way she can: “Got to Yorkshire via Bangkok / Needed a visa / Got with a geezer.” After verses that smack away at the hypocrisy and uncontrollability of the sex trade, the grandstanding slips into the chant of the chorus, “What can I get for a 10 dollar? / Anything you want!”
The 11 songs on Arular never give up the musical insurrection. Producer Diplo adds wonderful knots to the pre-existing napalm platters of sound. “Fire Fire” crackles with gargantuan kick drums and foreground static. Singles “Sunshower” and “Galang” contain enough whizzing effects to help the vocal medicine go down smooth.
Arular picks up rap music and wrenches its focus from the distended, self-indulgent American scene to a world of young people who have no time for the club or liberal-guilt coffee shop raps. Rap is the body politic of the developing world. Rap is power. Get ready for the revolution. It’s been waiting for you.
Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars