'Arular' conceals powerful social commentary with shiny hip-hop veneer
British hip-hop artist Maya Arulpragasam grew up in poverty-stricken, war-torn Sri Lanka, where she and her family lived until the country's civil war forced them to flee to England. After a substantial production delay, Arulpragasam released her debut album in March, recording under the moniker M.I.A. to honor family members still missing in her homeland. The product proves well worth the wait, if not quite "worth" the tumultuous upbringing that shaped Arulpragasam as both a performer and a human being.
Unlike too many working hip-hop artists today, Arulpragasam can not only capitalize on alluring rhythms and solid vocals, but she can also deliver lyrics worth a listen in their own right. "Arular," an expression of her continued concern for and connection to her struggling native country set to highly danceable beats, ranks among the more innovative and original albums in recent memory.
Arulpragasam's humble beginnings inform the social and political agendas that underlie her music. She comes by her activism and her revolutionary views honestly; her father, for whom she named her album, founded a militant guerilla group in Sri Lanka championing the political independence of the nation's minority ethnic population. Arulpragasam's songs tell of Sri Lankans -- doomed to become Nike factory workers or prostitutes -- living amidst chaos and violence, and of the hope for a better life that both uplifts and destroys her people. "Dial-a-Bride from Sri Lanka / Found herself a Yorkshire banker / Need a Visa? Got with a geezer/ Need some money? / Paid him with a knees-up," Arulpragasam raps on "10 Dollar." On "Amazon," she proclaims her commitment to bringing about a much-needed revolution: "I don't want your attention / Under submission / Out of frustration I'll do it / I'll scream for the nation."
Arulpragasam's own cultural and ethnic identity influences many tracks, and her simultaneous acknowledgement and defiance of the labels with which others quickly brand her yield resigned but angry reflections on racism. "I got brown skin but I'm a West Londoner / Educated but a refugee still," Arulpragasam muses at one point.
Musically, "Arular" draws on influences from across the board, sampling disco, reggae, grime, baile funk and straight-up pop sounds. There is a certain smug self-confidence that exists in this freshman effort, with a lively collection of pulsating hip-hop resting on 13 tracks' worth of provocative statements about political repression. Arulpragasam effectively tricks her audience into labeling her yet again -- this time as just another up-and-coming female hip-hop artist -- even while proving them wrong through the magnitude of the issues tackled in her songs.
Granted, "Arular" does not quite come off flawlessly. In fact, its weaknesses are among those most common to mainstream hip-hop, a reality that undermines Arulpragasam's assured uniqueness. The album's beats, though enticing, blend together somewhat monotonously, and it becomes difficult to distinguish tracks from one another based on sound alone. What's worse, Arulpragasam's lyrics are often easily lost to overbearing drums, garbled delivery or a combination of the two. If listeners don't understand just what it is that Arulpragasam is rapping about, that should be the fault of her infectious, deceptively carefree beats, rather than her sometimes barely-coherent renditions of her searing lyrics.
"Sunshowers," arguably the most disturbing song on the album, exposes the terrifying world Arulpragasam once called home. The song recounts the fate of a Sri Lankan man killed for his alleged association with a Muslim group: "Semi-nine and snipered him / On that wall they posted him / They cornered him / And then just murdered him." But "Sunshowers" seemingly opens with the kind of cocky gibberish one would expect from any old club anthem, rapping, "I bongo with my lingo / Beat it like a wing yo / From Congo to Columbo / Can't stereotype my thing yo." Arulpragasam's gift for disguising her weighty statements borders on uncanny; that people might contentedly groove to her music without hearing a word of it borders on tragic.
Despite her intensely serious subject matter, Arulpragasam provides plenty of genuine fun. "Could it be that me and he / Are tighter than R. Kelly in his teens?" she asks innocently on "U.R.A.Q.T.," a lyrical attack on a meddling ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, "Galang," the album's first single, boasts absurdly catchy London street slang and dancehall beats.
Arulpragasam's legitimacy as a politically engaged artist and genuine musical talent complement one another very nicely. "Arular" never lays on the ideology at the price of a good song, and yet, the artist's insight still pervades every track.
It's unfortunate that Arulpragasam's intention in putting this album together works against itself to an extent. She offers bold, compelling testimony masquerading as mindless hip-hop about life in Sri Lanka, but she does it so well that many people just won't get what she's really rapping about. But this promising debut hints at bigger and better things still to come from Arulpragasam. "Arular" clearly designates M.I.A. as a force to be reckoned with.