In the year 2010, VH1 will begin broadcasting installments of “I Love the ’00s,” with nonstop witty observations from the next generation’s ugly comedians. And before the commercial break in the 2004 edition, a purple leather-jacket clad Peaches will deliver the year’s most deck electroclash hits — LCD Soundsystem’s “Yeah,” Annie’s “Chewing Gum” and M.I.A.’s “Galang.” Maybe that’s an unlikely scenario, but even the most casual of webzine readers have, by now, heard of M.I.A. Having actually heard the Sri Lankan beat mistress is an entirely different story. But the name alone stands out, both a play on her birth name (Maya Arulpragasam) and acronym for “missing in action.” For those who haven’t heard the story, at age 11, Maya was a refugee of war, forced to flee Sri Lanka during the Sinhala-Tamil conflict in the region in the 1980s. Since then, she’s found good company with the likes of Peaches, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and Pulp’s Steve Mackey. Now, the girl’s all over the place, even the New Yorker.
But you see, there’s merit to this media storm surrounding M.I.A. She bangs out mind-blowing electro singles like “Hombre,” “Amazon” and, of course, last year’s breathrough, “Galang,” which closes Arular with a heavy dose of rapid-fire Roland beat science. And it’s not enough for M.I.A. to simply get your ass moving. Her target is your mind, as her intelligent, political-leaning lyrics are far more thought-provoking than contemporaries like The Streets or Peaches. Just look at “Pull Up the People,” in which Maya Arul chants “I got the bombs to make you blow/I got the beats to make you bang, bang, bang” not long before declaring “I’m a soldier.” And when she shouts “competition comin’ up now/load up and fire! fire! fire!” over a siren-like synth screech, you almost feel compelled to duck for cover.
“Amazon” is among the best tracks on the album, sung from the perspective of a kidnapped war refugee. Less immediately bombastic and far more exotic than the album’s first three tracks (not counting the skits), it’s a song destined for greatness and for hit single status. Though I’m not positive that the world is ready for the gritty picture it paints: “Clipping up coupons/saving for the telephone/can I call home?/Please, can I go home?” The following track, “Bingo,” is a more reggae-influenced affair, all distorted synths and grimy samples. But just when you think you’ve got M.I.A. pegged as some kind of 909-wielding female Che Guevara, she strips it down to her most primal, sexual instincts on “Hombre,” a sweaty sex jam with some clever but naughty come-ons: “Hello little hombre/take my number call me/I’ve been getting squeaky/so come on over and oil me”
The last three tracks on the record are the most single-ready, though that’s strictly by M.I.A.’s standards, mind you. There’s nothing “commercial” or top 40 ready about this record. Nonetheless, the frantic techno of “$10,” the R&B crossover of “Sunshowers” (with the million-dollar line, “Just Like PLO/we don’t surrend-o“) and Maya A’s original claim to fame, “Galang,” have the potential to turn the tides of dance music toward something far less predictable and much more raw and uninhibited. Not even rave techno could have been this invigorating when it was first introduced to the world.
This isn’t the first you’ve heard of M.I.A. and it’ll be far from the last. The girl’s got some fat beats, fucked-up samples and witty rhymes, all of which make for great dance music. Whether or not the mainstream is ready to be infiltrated by her oddball approach, the underground will never be the same again.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.