Sure, globalization has its drawbacks: McDonald’s in the ruins, Wal-Marts in the rainforest, Guatemalan peasants quoting Dr. Phil. Sometimes, though, it’s pretty great, and Maya Arulpragasam, a Sri Lanka–raised, London-based MC who goes by the tag M.I.A., is all the proof you need that a shrunken, mongrelized, borderless world doesn’t necessarily mean oppression and colonialism and bland, soul-killing homogeneity. Sometimes it can mean liberation.
Arulpragasam is an unlikely rapper with an unlikely backstory. She was born in London to Sri Lankan parents, who took her back to their homeland when she was 6 months old. Her father (nicknamed Arular, or “ruler,” by his guerilla followers) was a founding member of a militant Tamil group and was forced to go underground as the civil war intensified; Arulpragasam, her mother, and her siblings moved to India and then back to Sri Lanka before finally fleeing the country for good, earning refugee status in England. At age 11, Arulpragasam moved with her family to a crime-ridden housing project in Mitcham, Surrey, where she began to learn English and listen to American hip-hop. Although she was drawn to the fierce, politically charged rhymes of Public Enemy and N.W.A., she considered herself a fan, not an aspiring performer. Instead, she studied visual art, graduating from Central St. Martins College of Art and Design with a film degree.
After her first exhibition of paintings was nominated for the Alternative Turner prize, Arulpragasam seemed to be headed for a successful art career, but fate intervened. In 2001, Justine Frischmann, of Elastica, hired her to film a documentary of the band’s tour. Peaches, Elastica’s opening act, introduced her to the Roland MC-505 Groovebox, a primitive keyboard with a built-in drum machine. Within a few months, she’d mastered the machine and was making songs in her bedroom, odd little gimcrack raps that reflected her love of Jamaican dancehall, American rap, and U.K. garage with a few flourishes of ragga, bhangra, and punk thrown in for good measure. One of these songs, “Galang,” became an instant club smash after she enlisted the help of producer Steve Mackey, of the Britpop outfit Pulp.
Mackey, Ross Orton, Anthony Whiting, Richard X, and Switch all had a hand in producing Arular, Arulpragasam’s full-length début, augmenting her rudimentary arrangements with nifty analog touches and glitchy textures. Fortunately, their contributions don’t overwhelm her raw, minimalist punch, and the 13 songs sound brutal, catchy, and idiosyncratic. Unlike the vast majority of hip-hop releases, Arular is refreshingly lean, clocking in at just under 40 minutes; it’s completely free of the painfully unfunny filler that mars so many contemporary rap albums, and it leaves you wanting more when it’s over.
Although it’s hard to believe that anything could match the exhilarating force of “Galang,” several tracks do just that. “Pull Up the People,” a populist call to arms, mixes clattery beats with squelchy blurts and video-game sound effects while Arulpragasam brags, “I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang!” “Bucky Done Gun” combines a sampled horn fanfare with rolling drums and lyrics that sound simultaneously sexy and militant. “Fire Fire” is Timbaland-spooky, a disorienting synthetic whine colluding with fidgety drums, and “Amazon,” the album’s most densely produced track, uses unidentifiable insectoid chirps to evoke the jungle where the narrator is being held hostage. “10 $” tackles Third World child prostitution without coming off as preachy, and “Hombre” intersperses a simple but absolutely killer vocal hook with such lines as “Gonna make the homeboy want me, gonna make the homeboy take me.” It’s early in the year to be making grand claims, but I’ll go out on a limb: This is the best rap CD of 2005.