As I have progressed through life, my once cast-iron taste in music has morphed. As recently as 2005, I used to take an instant like/dislike to an album within one or two plays of the LP. My judgment (so I thought) was infallible, and I trusted my aim more than anything else in life. Then, two albums dropped that forever changed the way I listen to music – both for critical and enjoyment purposes. The first was the eponymous debut of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – the much hailed darlings of the indie music scene. The process involved: me not knowing anything about the artist; listening to their music; initially hating it; then not being able to dislodge the melodies from my head. Their LP has since made it into my Top Ten favourite albums of all time, of any genre.
The second album is the subject of this review â€“ the debut of M.I.A. entitled ‘Arular’. The album followed a similar trajectory, insofar as listening to, initially hating, and subsequently loving it. One difference remains, however – the first time I heard about or saw M.I.A. was in conjunction with her nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in her native United Kingdom. I did not take a liking to her slurred interview about how she was tougher than any of the ‘fake wannabe gangsters’ who had taken over the American music scene – she seemed a strange, almost displaced figure in any musical scene. Yes, she is the daughter of a Tamil Tiger, but I cared more about the music than the back story. Yet, I took a chance on her album, and while it just misses out on my Top Ten of all time, it is certainly Top 20, and I’ve definitely grown to hail it as a classic debut.
So what of Maya Arulpragasam? Her voice and style is jarring – a harsher Missy Elliot, without the tuneful natureâ€¦ Or so it seems. Within three or four plays of this short thirteen-track audio assault, you could well be converted – in fact as a work of art in its own right, it exceeds any LP that Missy Elliot ever released… A bold claim? After a short intro, ‘Arular’ springs into life with the politically-charged â€œPull Up The People”:
“Slang tang, that’s the that M.I.A. thang
I got the bombs to make you blow
I got the beats to make you bang bang bang…
…Yeah me got God, and me got you
Everyday thinking about how me get through
Everything I own is on I.O.U.
But I’m here bringing y’all something new”
It almost like she is goading the United States administration – her ‘bomb threats’ are the musical beats, and despite her knowing that she will be perceived as a ‘terrorist’ for even uttering such words, she dives feet-first into the challenge. She wants the controversy, she inhales and thrives on it. As far as her lyrical style goes, don’t expect a standard hip hop delivery. It is difficult to classify her as a ‘rapper’ – perhaps ‘MC’ is a more apt description, as she switches between rap, singing, spoken word and good old-fashioned shouting. Peep the breakthrough single in the USA, â€œBucky Done Gun”, with her spoken verse juxtaposed with a shouted chorus bouncing over a ‘Rocky’ sampling Brazilian beat. Confused? Once you hear the song, it will all click together – like â€œPush It” with even bigger cojones, it just works (and allegedly made it into an episode of ‘The O.C.’ – for better or worse). Followed by the incredibly catchy â€œSunshowers” and the dancehall banger â€œFire Fire”, a second skit is necessary in order to catch your breath back.
“Amazon” is next up, and marks the beginning of a slightly more meditative core, with either less intense or somewhat slower-tempo big beats (â€œBingo”). All the way through this album, the melodies prevail – and are helped along by beautiful production touches so subtle, they barely reveal themselves until repeated listens, all the while jostling for space with the big banging bass. And while her lyrics don’t merit close analysis under a traditional hip hop microscope, the odd line here and there always manages to break through the ranks. In other words, one clever phrase unlocks a seemingly perplexing song – take ‘Hombre’, with a chorus consisting of: “Excuse me little hombre – take my number, call me, I can get sqeaky so you can come and oil me”. You may think it is a typical ‘sex sells’ rap – but check the second verse:
“You can stick me, stab me, grind me or wind me
Fuck, we can even ask your wifey
Rich bored at home with a kiddie
She don’t know about you getting nookie”
She is filled with vitriol, and possesses the form of a prostitute to flip it on the hip hop stereotypes – a method utilised once more on â€œ10 Dollar”. The actually-not-as-cheesy-as-first-thought â€œU.R.A.Q.T.” is listed as the penultimate track on the album. Last up is her underground breakthrough anthem, â€œGalang” – as strong as any thing else on the LP. However, a hidden bonus track lies in wait – the solid stream-of-consciousness â€œM.I.A.” rounds things off nicely.
What really gives this album classic status is the MUSIC – it seems undeniable that if you gave any hip hop fan an instrumental version of this album, it would eventually infiltrate in the deepest recesses and refuse to budge. The artist herself knows exactly how to ride on top of this international musical melting pot, and while she may not be perfect – and certainly not to everyone’s taste – Maya Arulpragasam does well enough for a debut, without dropping the ball. The melodies here are rock solid, and if you give ‘Arular’ a chance (like I did) the chances are you will either unswervingly hate it or totally love it. I like that about the album â€“ recently hip hop plays it too safe, and at least M.I.A. takes a bold chance and really goes for it, hell for leather. There also appear to be an army of clones since her inception, including Lady Sovereign (and Luciana, the girl from the Bodyrox single) – and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Some may even call M.I.A. a clone of Missy Elliot but that would be wide of the mark. Just do yourself a favour and have a listen to the original – you might just like it as much as I do.