I write this review with a simple purpose: to tell you that M.I.A.’s Arular is perhaps the best damned pop/rap/hip-hop/dancehall/electronic album in existence, and if you do not want to pick it up then you are intentionally depriving your ears of a buttered grilled-cheese sandwich of audial joy.
To make my reasoning clear, these are your top 5 reasons to like this album, in arbitrary order:
2. Not too political
Now I will elaborate.
Reasons 1 and 2: M.I.A. is Maya Araprulgasm, an English (by way of Sri Lanka) MC who released two singles last year, “Sunshowers” and “Galang.” “Galang” did well on English pop charts, but “Sunshowers” got the press’s attention for the lyric “Like the P.L.O / I don’t surrendo” and the song’s recounting of a man’s being killed for associating with Muslims. Political rap died with Public Enemy and seeing new life in the genre is quite welcome; one can hardly say the rap mainstream is focused on politics and not ridiculous self-promotion and pettiness. When the press found out that Araprulgasm’s father is one of the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lankan freedom fighters / terrorists, they had a field day. New Yorker profiles, a playlist in the New York Times… what the hell?
Throughout the album, Araprulgasm maintains the political focus of the first two singles. There are songs about developing Stockholm Syndrome (“Amazon” and “Pull Up The People”) and immigrants getting out of Sri Lanka as mail-order brides (“10 Dollar”). But this isn’t Chuck D ranting about electing Louis Farrakhan; despite namedropping George W. Bush and the aforementioned Muslims, these rants don’t prevent you from getting up to dance. M.I.A. takes a clue from dancehall and makes sure that rapid flow and beats – paired with infectious choruses – keep listeners from standing around nodding their heads . M.I.A.’s lyrics are political only when you actively think about them; they’re background texture if you’re bouncing around in the club.
Reason 3: A whole lot of production talent went into this disc, including that of Diplo, Cavemen, and Richard X. The first two songs sound like Postal Service beatmaker Jimmy Tamborello took some speed, doubled the tempo of his traditional stuttered technique, and threw in a low bass hum to hold everything together. The rest of the album keeps the same focus on clean electronic beats (à la Grime rap in the UK), but adds slight live instrument and percussion samples (such as trumpets on “Bucky Done Gun”, tribal drums in “Sunshowers,” and marimbas in “Bingo”). Production remains daintily behind the vocals for much of the album. M.I.A’s voice is overdubbed on itself, and gets sliced up and pasted back together a few times, but maintains a pristine sound. The exceptions are “Amazon” and “10 Dollar,” where static haze mashes vocals and beats together. The stylistic change pays off in spades.
Reason 4: Oh, the vocals. M.I.A. raps with cockney, British, and American accents on the album. She sings as much as Britney Spears, she straight-out raps, and she wails. Sometimes she truncates her choruses in a tight bhangra-esque yelp. Her flow is rapid, and she ranges in lyrical content from exhortations to riot to pop sugar. “Hombre” could practically be “Toxic” in terms of lyrics (“I can get squeaky / So you can come and oil me”) but every so often on the track she bursts into a muezzin-esque cry of sweet release. I will not deny that asking M.I.A. to try and sing like some American Idol contestant would be foolhardy, but her lyrical and vocal savvy is undeniable. The very cockiness of her delivery makes pop gibberish wonderful. Galangalangalanglang
Reason 5: Arular is 13 tracks, 39 minutes long (three are sketches, which in this case just means a very brief rap). While each track is like a small child – special in its own way – this isn’t the kind of diversity one finds on the White Album. At 50 minutes, you’d be suffering from bloat due to the style, and looking for album highlights. Instead, you just hit the repeat button and start over again. Far enough away from the opening beats that they have a new vitality, close enough that you’re not disturbed by the difference.
Buy this album, treasure its sound, and when you get tired write some angry letters to the President. Then get back to rocking out.