When M.I.A. talks in lucid detail about being held captive in the Amazon, she does it with such nonchalance it’s as if she were recounting a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium. In fact, her grim contentions on “Amazon” fall at the middle of her charging debut LP, Arular, which is riddled with the spastic product of her compelling songwriting and primal, urgent beats.
Maya Arul (Arulpragasan) is the daughter of a founding member of a militant Tamil group in Sri Lanka, a country off the southern coast of India that’s been ravaged by a decades-long civil war. Historically, the Tamils represent the largest Hindu population in Sri Lanka but are second-largest in terms of overall numbers, dwarfed by the Sinhalese majority. With the region in the midst of the strife, Arul’s family underwent harassment, gunfire and bombings at the hand of the army. At age 11, she was moved to safety in London, but only in refugee conditions. Finally free of political and physical endangerment, she grew close to art, film and hip-hop. Arular is M.I.A.’s ode to the expressions she embraced after she discovered she was allowed to. And the album is a shouted, reactionary billboard of her past.
By 2003, she got together some songs via a Roland MC-505 sequencer. M.I.A.’s rough version of “Galang” fell into the hands of producers Ross Orton (Fat Truckers) and Steve Mackey (once the bass player in Pulp) and subsequently into record crates and hipster’s iPods. The single takes the final slot on Arular, and it’s a scraping grime number that has roots in the East London scene but contorts it in its own way. Over the troubling, persistent pounds, Arul’s voice cracks on occasion while her undecipherable lyrics float between empowerment themes and dance-floor invitations. She’s a constant riddle, raiding all styles for the beats, just as Hollertronix deejay/producer Diplo did in late 2004 for his explosive Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, a preview of Arular.
Arul’s songs are rugged, gaping calls for action, whether they’re portraits of religious persecution, as in “Sunshowers,” or tug-of-war battles between pop culture and guerilla culture, as in “Fire Fire.” She weaves gender discussions into political chants and is able to fit party-heavy sentiment in along the bumpy way. At times, she falls just out of range and can barely compete with the walls of mounting bass and rumbling, intrusive squeals that roll alongside the beats. But most of the time she’s on top, sometimes emceeing, sometimes singing, but always a significant force.