Album Reviews: Arular by M.I.A.Rarely these days can music critics say of a new artist: She sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. But the debut album from Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., truly is without precedent. Arular takes electroclash, Sri Lankan folk music, American hip-hop, and the jittery UK hip-hop/two-step hybrid known as grime, and distills them into something weird, wonderful and completely original. You’ll either love it or hate it.
M.I.A.’s backstory is as compelling as her music. The daughter of a Tamil rebel leader from the Asian island nation of Sri Lanka, M.I.A. and her family fled to London as political refugees while her father stayed behind to continue fighting for independence from the oppressive Sinhalese majority. Her first creative outlet was visual art, and she became a minor celebrity in London art circles for her vivid collage-and-spraypaint canvases, which mixed jungle and war imagery. Her art led to a connection with, of all things, British post-punk rockers Elastica, but it was another musician, the electroclash star Peaches, who inspired M.I.A. to try her hand at recording music.
Peaches’ influence can be heard on tracks like “Fire Fire,” with its sassy, pep squad stomp, but M.I.A.'s music ventures far beyond the stiff vamps of electroclash. Most of her songs are crazy-quilt mash-ups that stitch together the off-kilter beats and sing-song children’s rhymes of her native Sri Lanka, the cockney grime of fellow London MCs like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets’ Mike Skinner, and best of all, the stripped-down production and brash attitude of old-school American hip-hop acts like N.W.A and Salt-n-Pepa. The music itself would be interesting enough, but M.I.A. tops it off with a fresh rapping and singing style that should make her a superstar. She’s equally assured spitting political rhymes on “Pull Up the People” and getting down and dirty on raunchier tracks like “10 Dollar” and “Hombre,” which features the immortal chorus, “Excuse me Little Hombre/Take my number call me/I can get Squeaky/So you can come and oil me.”
Music this unique will probably vanish in the American market, which is too bad, because “Hombre” and the lead single “Sunshowers” have as much singalong and booty-shaking potential as a hit single like Ciara’s “Goodies" (which M.I.A. remixed for release as a UK 12-inch with producer Richard X). Maybe M.I.A. can hook up with Lil Jon for a crunk remix and score the mainstream success that she deserves and that bland commercial radio desperately needs. - Andy Hermann
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