The U.K.'s grime scene, with its gritty streets and sparse, rat-a-tat soundtrack, has become a permanent fixture on the hip hop family tree. M.I.A. is the latest outgrowth. But while this artist has (as she says on "Pull Up the People") "the bombs to make you blow ... the beats to make you bang," she's dropping those grenades from a slightly different perspective.
At once a cult figure whose name is on the lips of every major label and publication, a stunningly gorgeous tomboy of a girl in a boys' club, and a glaring threat to the dangerously limited black/white binary through which we view pop music, M.I.A. is doing a nail-biting balancing act that's left the world, not to mention herself, breathless.
"I feel like, 'Let's just get through the next two weeks.' And then you get to the next two weeks, and you're like, 'Fuck, how did this happen?' I never thought I was capable. I feel like I'm really pushing the limitations of being a human being -- it's like, 'How much more can you take on?'"
That, exactly, is what M.I.A. is about to find out.
The lightning-quick ascendance of M.I.A. -- an alias that stands for "Missing in Acton," which references both her London neighborhood and her politically tumultuous youth -- is yet another example of the cyber-grass-roots community flexing its musical muscles. She set her sights on writing and producing in 2002, holing up with a Roland MC-505 Groovebox (a rudimentary drum machine) and banging out an appetite-whetting single, "Galang." That song and its companion piece, "Sunshowers," were soon found frequenting the hottest blogs and hippest MP3 players, driving everyone who came into contact with their fetchingly concave dance-floor thumps and scorching, globe-trotting slang to make a fast break for his closest file-sharing system.
M.I.A. responded not with her promised debut, but with an even more grass-roots mash-up of her forthcoming album's tracks, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1, a mix that sounded as if M.I.A., in collaboration with Philly DJ/producer Diplo, had assembled it from the castoff beats and bytes of a transglobal underground club circuit. The bootleg release spread like a virus, and music hipsterdom was left beside itself in a tizzy of expectation for the wonders that the always-just-out-of-reach debut might hold.
So, just what is so titillating about M.I.A.'s sound? Judging by the press, much of its appeal seems to lie in the opportunity it offers journalists to throw as many descriptors at its originator as she can catch: dancehall, baile funk, Dizzee Rascal, grime, ragga, garage, dub, Neneh Cherry, crunk.
Put simply, M.I.A.'s aesthetic is nothing more than the mishmashed genre-fuck of a 28-year-old artist familiar with the ins and outs of the London streets and scenes. As M.I.A. says, she's "a walking mix tape" creating music that is "a bit refugee for the moment, it doesn't have a home."
Perhaps this isn't so surprising, considering that M.I.A. herself was once a refugee. Her childhood was spent weathering civil war in Sri Lanka, where her father was involved with the Tamil movement for independence from the Sinhalese majority. After repeatedly trying to flee the country, even as Tamils were being shot at border-crossing points, M.I.A. and her family finally escaped to London, eventually finding a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. Arular, with its name taken from M.I.A.'s father's nom de guerre, teems with themes of political unrest, persecution, and revolution, all of which are articulated for club relevance: "Pull up the people/ Pull up the poor," she singsongs over skipping-stone beats and slithering synths, calling for both literal and figurative head-spinning.
The tragic relevancy of her turbulent youth combined with her white-hot penchant for pastiche and the buzz of the underground has catapulted M.I.A. to an almost mythic cult status -- and planted her rather precariously on the tightrope-thin border between the West and the "Other," politics and partying, hype and reality.
Arular will be thrust onto a pop music scene that is still very rigidly divided into black and white (i.e., black music is X, white musicians make Y). Artists from both camps cross over and even sometimes play in the realm of sounds that exists outside of this binary -- see: bhangra-infused hip hop, reggae-meets-Asian-dub-meets-electro-punk -- but a self-reliant brown voice is still uncommon.
M.I.A. is well aware that timing is everything. "Any kind of music," she says by phone from the U.K., "even pop and stuff -- there's so many Indian influences in it all the time ... [but] there was no Asian person representing the vocal side, you know what I mean? ... And I was like, 'Well, shit, Dr. Dre and Truth Hurts have got, like, you know, this amazing Indian sound going on and why can't I do something over a hip hop beat or a dancehall beat? Because it's a fair exchange, you know?'"
The difficulty with setting up this fair exchange is that anything that doesn't fit into that black/white dichotomy is almost immediately reduced to exotic flavor of the week. An artist like M.I.A., who not only employs a number of these "flavors," but also accents them with shimmering bird cries, the dull thud of bamboo, gunshot beats, and lyrics about salting and peppering mangos, has to work twice as hard to make people hear her music as more than just "a jungle of ... rippling layers of sound."
When confronted with labels like "exotic" or "world music," M.I.A. says, "If they think this is exotic, well, I really feel like they haven't seen anything yet." She intends Arular to merely present a spectrum of the sounds that make up her everyday life, a feat in and of itself: The album is such a smorgasbord of flavors that it sometimes feels like an indiscernible melting pot (if I may mix my culinary metaphors so sloppily). "Galang"'s cosmopolitan infectiousness bites you right on the ass, but by "Hombre" you're mostly just reacquainting yourself with that now-homey throbbing bass and M.I.A.'s raspy, bratty vocals.
If some of Arular blends together, perhaps it's only because M.I.A., as a relatively novice musician, is trying to establish a consistent, recognizable voice. That voice must be loud and resilient enough to be heard amid the din of masculine voices that floods the dance music world, where a woman (and a female producer at that) who wants to be in control of her sound is something of a rarity.
"It's really difficult," she says. "The engineer, the sound man, the lighting guy, to the crew to the other band to venues -- how they all see you is just totally different. ... They look at me like I don't know what I'm talking about."
She does, but that doesn't change the fact that M.I.A. has unequivocally been charged with a lot of responsibility as a musician and as a political voice. Rhyming about another, socially distant world over beats (at least some) that sound like home, M.I.A. and her "otherness" are intriguing yet safe, politically relevant yet fun.
To a certain degree, that's exactly what she's aiming for. Politics have had too immense an impact on her to leave them out of her music.
"As an 8-year-old," she explains, "I didn't want to see 20 people dead in front of me and my school burned down ... but if they're gonna put those images in my head, then I have to talk about it because that exists and I have to live with that."
Music presented a forum for her to deal with these issues that felt more relevant than the double-speak and bureaucracy of conventional politics, a way to "[make] people feel better at the same time you're trying to tell them something." But however much she may cultivate a political identity (calling oneself "M.I.A." is probably milking it a bit), to position this artist as the pop voice of the Third World, to exoticize the harsh reality in which she grew up, is to do her music -- and her activism -- a disservice.
Similarly, to judge Arular by the buildup it has generated is to miss out on what it really is: a solid, exciting debut. The album's release date, which has finally been set as March 22 in the United States, has been pushed back several times, most recently because, M.I.A. says, there has been something of "a battle on" for it among major labels. As reported in Billboard just last week, Interscope seems to have come out the winner.
The kidnapping M.I.A. describes in "Amazon" may have real-life political relevance, but, ironically, it also eerily predicts the rather nefarious efforts (however well-intentioned) of the music world to swoop in, bag, and tag as its own an artist who smacks of Something Else. Whether M.I.A. falls victim to the hype machine or manages to be even more than we'd all hoped for, Arular stands as an example of a smart new artist's effort to gracefully tiptoe along and across borders of music and identity, with hipsters and critics in hot pursuit. Now is the time for the world to, as M.I.A. so eloquently says on "Bucky Done Gun," "quieten down." M.I.A. needs to make a sound.