Where we left off with the sonic schizophrenia of Kenna’s face, we now delve into M.I.A.’s socially schizophonic scape. Maya Arulpragasam came onto the scene in 2005 with her debut, Arular. M.I.A. mirrors the past – leading by sample – and marks the future. From sound to sentiment to style, she lays the groundwork for the new underground of which she spoke in NME
In people’s hard drives and their brains, it just hasn’t been outputted yet. We need a digital moshpit like we’ve never seen, harder than how people were doing it in the punk era. We need that energy, but digitally. It’s coming.
On the brink of her third album, and a superficial rebirth, it’s important to see that we still have the same M.I.A. – with the same perspective – in a different package.
Arular came out when I was a freshman in college, and – in conjunction with the urban landscape of Manhattan as my backdrop – was instrumental in my musical maturation. Just as New York is a microcosm of the world, so Arular was a concentrated synthesis of sounds and global societies. Just as I was cementing my identity as a world citizen, so M.I.A. was constructing our cultural identity.
M.I.A.’s eponymous track – “Untitled” – marks her signature as much as ours: a general in the midst – and at the helm – of a lost generation. More so than most, Arulpragasam embodies this era: missing in action – we may not know where we are or what we’re doing, but we’re doing it big. Arular is that electronic indigenous sound of an era on the cusp of tradition and innovation. As M.I.A lays down her blueprint electronic to lead a tribe in the midst of unparalleled transition, so Arular reflects that ambiguity in being born free.
“They’re coming through the window, they’re coming through the door. They’re busting down the big wall, and sounding the horn… I’ll hard drive your bit, I’m battered by your sumo grip. Lucky I like feeling shit, my stamina can take it. Gymnastics super fit, muscle in the gun clip. Bite teeth, nose bleed, tied up in a scarf piece.” If “Born Free” was a documentary, “Bucky Done Gun” would be the script. The tone, the accent, the vernacular, and language behind the lyrics is so ambiguous, though. Just like gingers in the middle of a Middle-Eastern-looking city are the clashing of two seemingly opposite cultures, it is that very same contradictory collision that builds M.I.A.’s appeal. It’s universal and all-inclusive, because it is so panoramic. It’s so global, it’s generic; it’s so diverse, it’s diluted – and that’s Pop. “Bucky Done Gun” has that catchy beat that makes the teens bop, but the hard bars that hold the block. Beneath the “so much of everything” sound though, at the core, is the technological connection with the tribe.
“Bingo” pings the sonic nexus of the information age. Here M.I.A. boasts an understated Sri Lankan slur swagger over beats that lie at the bullseye of the signature indigenous electronic sound. There’s engines revving under laser guns. There’s sirens alongside beaming bombs. M.I.A.’s vocal chants echo with robotic ramblings like banter from an episode of the Jamaican Jetsons. The whole vibe is industrial Caribbean, right down to the synthesized steel drums. Integration is everywhere, from the soundscape to the social scope.
On the classic standout “10 Dollar“, M.I.A. dons the Brooklyn B-boy beat below her trademark ferocious foreign flow. This track is the epitome of Arulpragasm’s vision of the Universal Sound Board – USB is the new Visa in this age of technology – worldwide currency: everywhere you want to be. Here we have a bi-tri-panlingual bombast over larger-than-life low-fi. M.I.A. brings the automaton-meets-aborigine atmosphere. She literally gives power to the people by bombarding the airwaves with analogue layers, and bringing that basic bombast from the ground up. 10 dollars is nothing to the U.S., but the USD is golden in the developing world… so what can you get for a Hamilton? Anyting and everyting you want. This song slips the social scope into the catchy riffs, and brings the third-world vantage to the western world. In the midst of a George W. Bush America, and uniform “Top 40” structure, M.I.A. brought that third-world sound. In a time where Pop and Politics are juxtaposed and seen as opposites, M.I.A. highlights the parallels between seeming polarities.
When she reigns, it pours. “Sunshowers” is a track that underscores the Arular vision of sweet deception. There’s light claps sprinkled along the surface like raindrops before the deluging looped bass descends, as the sound literally drains – resonating the juxtaposition within the track’s title. The lyrics are simple with M.I.A.’s devil-may-care intonation harmonizing with an airy secondary songstress. The echoing vocalist in tandem is a constant throughout Arular – a silver lining to the sunshower’s overcast – and beneath the solar downpour is a lone guerrilla soldier making their way out of the jungle.
“Amazon” is the Omega to “M.I.A.‘s” Alpha – lyrically, sonically, thematically – it completes the iconography. This is the game and this is the globe – the icon and the individuals within her generation held hostage. “I was missin’ in action, on the side of a carton. I was taken in a Datsun, from a street in Acton… I was sipping on a Rubicon, thinking ’bout where I come. It’s all this for revolution, cuttin’ up the coupon. Saving for a telephone, can I call home. Please can I go home.” There’s schizo synth echoes beneath M.I.A.’s repeating dialog, amplifying self-inquiry: “Hello, this is M.I.A. can you please come and get me?”
Deep in the Amazon she’s lost but, then again, who isn’t? Man was born free, but everywhere is in chains; Arulpragasm was born free, then shackled to the game with boys in chains and paper planes, only to break free again. Before Kala‘s corner swag put M.I.A. on the mainstream map, she was nestled in the jungle with: “Painted nails, sunsets on horizons. Palm trees silhouette smells amazing. Blindfolds under home made lanterns. Somewhere in the Amazon.” Then with the Pineapple Express came the hits, the fame, the beautiful life behind sixteen bars, and the icy chains: “They’re holding me Ransom. Smoking on a Benson, tryin’ to get me undone. Let me go, I don’t want your attention. Under submission, out of frustration I’ll do it – I’ll scream for the nation.” Her tone is still so calm, as she cries loudest in the cut.
Above all else it is that fire, that innate infidel spirit that sets M.I.A. apart – sonic aesthetic and artistic identity. She finds comfort in conflict, and creates through chaos; she finds herself in the confusion, and finds resolve in revolution. Whether she’s an Amazonian bamboo banga, coming around with the boyz, or a punk born free, she’s that same Sri Lankan miss singing in action – same vantage, same voice, different veneer. M.I.A. is that same guerrilla general leading the generation out of the jungle.
“Minutes turned to hours, and became our dates. When we shared raindrops, that turned into lakes. Bodies started merging, and the lines got grey. Now I’m looking at him thinking, maybe he’s okay.” As she closes with “Hello this is M.I.A; it’s okay, you forgot me,” it’s the uncertain arrogance in ambiguity, that lost sense of time or place that comes from being in the dense depths for so long, that resonates loudest. As the close is simply stated over the underground UFO beat, with the prominent sounds of a skeleton-esque xylophone beneath, the end is what puts the new beginning in motion. This is the future, from oblivion she builds the future sound from her own past skeletons, and a future culture from forgotten corpses.
It’s raw, it’s real, it’s quite a modern masterpiece. However – fast-forwarding – it isn’t a far cry from where she is now. In light of the “Born Free” video it’s important to look back and see what made M.I.A. Granted she has a punk sound now, it’s not completely divergent from her original style. Arular was bright – sonically and visually kaleidoscopic – like Keith Haring on Crack. This new sound is still the same M.I.A. – same point-of-view, different package. That said, it’s nice to look back and see how she’s growing as an artist, but holding fast to her sonic aesthetic without compromising her core vision or voice. M.I.A. can’t change; she’s like a Chameleon: always a lizard. Hello, M.I.A.? Arular? Unforgettable.