At first glance, the word “arular” looks like a misspelled conflagration of “aural” or “oral,” some obscure Spanish verb, or, as Google would have it, a typo of “a ruler.” As it happens, the linguistic mish-mash perfectly captures the head-scratching, hip-shaking wonderment of “Arular,” the debut album by eccentric South Asian rapper (and singer) M.I.A. Born Maya Arulpragasam in the backwater rice paddies of Sri Lanka, M.I.A. tears through a veritable where’s-where of musical styles on the 38 minutes of her debut, fusing a third-world vibrancy with the polish of American or British top 40. And though the album’s calculated glitchiness sometimes grows a bit overwhelming for untested ears, its sheer uniqueness positions “Arular” as the first truly global pop album: modern yet traditional, urban but tribal, aggressive and equally delicate.
This is not an album for music fans who like their beats wrapped up in pretty packages. Most of M.I.A.’s songs forsake tight melodies in exchange for rhythms as raunchy as British MC Dizzee Rascal’s. It’s almost difficult to zero-in on a single number, because each track takes the rapper’s driving energy in a wildly different direction.
“Hombre,” the album’s most immediately likeable number, is built around a shuddering hotbed of tribal yells and Shirley Manson-inspired sex moans. The beat is made of messy synthesizers that sound like alarm clocks taking voice lessons. “Amazon,” on the other hand, sounds like the soundtrack of “Crash Bandicoot” on ecstasy. While bits of clanking metal reverberate through massive, echoing jungle drums, the beat’s lush chimes and cricket-like chirps create a humid vibe. It’s a sound as earthy as any of nature’s rhythms, yet over it all rests the heavy, dynamic sheen of high technology, a computerized synthesizer that has managed to sort out all the disparate noises of the rainforest. The vibe changes completely on the sweet and tropical-fruity “Bingo,” on which an effervescent steel drum hogs the spotlight from laser bleeps and revving engines.
While M.I.A. proudly raps to the beat of her own drums, her influences ring loud and clear. The crunchy elephant stomps of the addictive “Galang” sound like Timbaland at his Africanized best, but the sparse claps and zig-zag record scratches of “Sunshowers” is about as hip-hop as it gets on the record. “Pull up the People” is a patent Chemical Brothers rip-off, but it’s so much fun (and its singular hand-claps are so good) that you won’t mind. The same goes for “Bucky Done Gun,” a head-bobbing track that takes the drum machines straight out of the Beastie Boys’ debut (not to mention some “Funky Monkey”-inspired brass), and adds her wonderfully lilting flow on top: “Gymnastics, super fit/ Muscle of the gun clip/ Bite, teeth, nose bleed/ Tied up in the scarf piece.”
With all else that goes on within these songs, it’s hard to imagine there’d be any room left for a vocalist. Yet this is just where “Arular” surprises the most — for not only does M.I.A. make herself heard amid the chaos, her flow owns the whole damn album. Of course, half the time you have no idea what she’s talking about: But the quirky foreignness of her references (if you can even decipher them) is all part of the package. Of all the wild sounds on the album, the language of M.I.A.’s polyglot hip-hop is the freakiest, most richly woven of them all.
For the majority of the album, the lyrical subject matter alternates between sexual come-ons and the weighty matters of war. Sri Lanka, after all, is one of the most volatile, war-torn nations in the world. M.I.A., despite the B-girl hipness of the upbeat tracks, doesn’t see life as one giant party. But its hard to tell where the rapper’s politics lie when she lets the vocabulary of violence, especially the omnipresent rifle imagery, seep into the record’s every facet — from a quasi-love song like “Sunshowers” to the grafitti-rich cover art. But M.I.A. doesn’t seem to be condemning anything, she just tells stories.
Yet the ultimate charm of the album lies in its ability to turn even the most gut-wrenching of concepts — mail-order Asian brides killing their husbands; revolutionaries toting their assault rifles through the barrio; bombs, booze and drugs as the world shatters in every direction — into the next generation of danceable, hip, truly global uber-pop.