The United Colors of M.I.A.

This Sri Lanka-born, London-based MC knocks down more walls than our global village can even think to put up

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.

M.I.A.: "If they think this is exotic, well, I really feel like 
they haven't seen anything yet."
David Titlow
M.I.A.: "If they think this is exotic, well, I really feel like they haven't seen anything yet."

"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 thepop 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.

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