And the Wind Cries Maya
At the decade's midpoint, we've finally got the beat of the Zero Years: an international consolidation of East-West styles all tied up neatly in an 808-shaped bow. In this quad-continental era, Erick Sermon responds to a Hindi lyric with "Whatever she said, then I'm that" and Jay-Z rides with Panjabi MC. Which makes it a good time for someone like Maya Arulpragasam to release her debut. A Sri Lankan refugee whose family fled the country (her father fought as a Tamil independence militant), she came of age in London with a Bomb Squad soundtrack. After Peaches coaxed her into tinkering with a Roland MC-505, M.I.A. released 2004's Q*Bert-ragga single "Galang" and its follow-up, a rubber-tabla reappropriation of Dr. Buzzard's "Sunshowers." Both tracks, which appear near the end of Arular, caught critics' attention because they fit into many different niches: grime, dancehall, hip hop, R&B.
Like the singles, the other songs on this full-length debut place an emphasis on Metroid explosion bass lines, maxi-minimalist click-rhythms, and the occasional burst of tinny 8-bit machine gun fire. From the retro-electro sprint "10 Dollar" to the slinky chimes of "Amazon," the tracks are simply a series of stunning exclamation points, and their success rests largely on M.I.A.'s vocals. Deadpan here, buoyant there, her voice is frequently double-tracked in a way that makes her sound like a one-woman Althea & Donna, flinging singsong lyrics like grenades on yo-yo strings. On the album's first song, her exhortation "Pull up the people/Pull up the poor" is a perfect slogan-as-chorus, and "Fire Fire" recounts her immigrant experiences as it name-drops various Jamaican ragga dance crazes: "Row da boat, straight to da ocean/Give 'im a run, a run at his own game/Signal the plane, and I landed on the runway/A survivor, independent foreigner." The beginning of "Bucky Done Gun" outlines her purpose: New York, London, Kingston, and Brazil are all told to "quiet'n down, I need to make a sound." If they don't, her voice can still penetrate the noise, staking roots in all four cities, all four sounds.
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