Piracy Funds Terrorism (2004)
Arular (X/O, 2005)
Kala (X/O, 2007)
The first two words most of us heard from Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam were a Clash reference: "London Calling!" The next four were a hip-hop entreaty: "Speak the slang now!" And less than ten seconds into her scorching debut single, "Galang," we had everything we needed to know about the Sri Lankan-born singer: Part punk rock bomb-thrower, part rap renegade, queen of the bongo lingo and master of global beat jujutsu, M.I.A. wiretaps the chatter, chirp and babble of an increasingly interconnected world that always seems to be coming apart at the seams. With her exotic beauty and her problematic hard-left cred (her dad was in Sri Lanka's Maoist-separatist Tamil Tigers), she was a fantasy to dudes in Che T-shirts who also dug the Clipse. But the resume is only half as intoxicating as the music, usually stirred by producer Diplo, blurring cheap jeep beats, dancehall, Brazilian baile funk, giggly diva R&B, referencing to everything from the Modern Lovers to Boogie Down Productions. It redefines "world music" as the sound of global commerce eating itself.
M.I.A. seemed to come out of nowhere fully-formed, but Arulpragasam had actually been a London scenester since the Nineties (she did the cover art to Elastica's second record, The Menace). Her years as a wannabe served her well when she developed her bankable persona in the early 2000s — her hunger for fame was a weird part of her allure. The ground for Arular was seeded by a fabulous, if stupidly titled 2004 mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism; Diplo laced together other people's jams (Jay-Z, Missy, the Bangles) and a few of M.I.A's own while she brought her signature slang-juggling "Fire! Fire!" M.I.A. sounded at once feisty and inviting, playful and cutting, slipping in and out of dialects with the fleet tongue of a true vocal ninja and the attention span of a titsi fly.
Arular made good on Piracy's promise. Diplo's beats were cutting-edge, but they also sounded like the kind of thing any kid with web access and a good ear could cook up on his laptop, a nice democratic touch that subverted M.I.A.'s intimidating coolness. "Sunshowers" turned a bubbly minimalist grind and a melody ripped from Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band into a cute ode to summer love; "Pull Up the People" floated lefty signifying over a bracing distorted low-end throb, "Bucky Done Gone" was a catchy, crackin' electro jam with a Rocky horn fanfare and M.I.A. promising "I'm armed and I'm equal / More fun for the people," and "Galang" rode a stuttered beat and laser blasts to become the outré dancefloor-filler of 2005. In the 2000s, sub-cultures could be self-sustaining and thrive without reaching towards the at-times frightening glow of mainstream exposure. The Nineties indie-kid in M.I.A, hungered for more, and she was one of the few underground stars of the decade to recall Nirvana or Hole or the Beastie Boys in her desire to attract mass-cult attention for her subterranean sounds.
Kala was supposed to be co-produced by Timbaland, foretelling a possible move into Missy Elliott territory. His contribution ended up being minimal, but Kala was still a huge artistic leap, proving M.I.A. was more than a one-trick pony in camo pedal pushers. Recorded with several producers in Australia, Trinidad and Liberia, among other hot spots, it's a record with the whole world in its hand. "Bird Flu" is just M.I.A. break-neck freestyling over an army of Indian drummers; on "$20" she steals lines from the Pixies "Where Is My Mind" over tumultuous laser blast and bass shudders; the lithe, pretty "Jimmy" a breathy flirt-fest mixing Bollywood and Blondie. Kala's "Galang" is "Paper Planes," a Clash homage that, thanks to its use in the film Slum Dog Millionaire, became a surprise hit a year after the album came out. On "Planes," gunshots bounce off cash register ka-chings, M.I.A. brags she's "got more records than the KGB," and a chorus of girls turns the phrase "summer summer summer murda" into a skip-rope sing-along. It's everything M.I.A. is all at once: Joyous, rebellious, socially conscious (if a tad morally iffy), spanning the globe to bring you tomorrow's party tonight.
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