Pop CD of the week

Pop CD of the week: MIA, Arular


According to sources as disparate as the New Yorker, Top of the Pops magazine, Elle and the intellectual-yet-excitable I Love Music internet message board, MIA's debut album is a must-have of 2005. Its international release was recently put back to accommodate a deal with hip hop powerhouse Interscope in the US. Its author, 28-year-old west London MC Maya Arulpragasam, is being heralded as a cross between Neneh Cherry, Missy Elliott and Dizzee Rascal.

The former art student is a dream to photograph; what's more, she has an irresistible biography. She spent her childhood in Sri Lanka, the daughter of a Tamil insurgent. She and her mother came to the UK and were deposited on a racist estate in south London. As a teenager, she discovered hip hop, then went to art college and eventually made contact with two pivotal female Svengali figures, Elastica's Justine Frischmann and raunchy MC Peaches, who taught her to use a beatbox.

Arulpragasam's combination of groundbreaking music and lush backstory is like catnip to music journalists, and you would be forgiven for assuming Arular, MIA's debut, could never live up to the excitement it has generated. The great news is that it does.

Arular is a remarkable record - inventive, passionate and playful, filled with heart-attack beats and nursery-rhyme melodies, vignettes of London life ('Giro-casher and baby-maker/ lottery's got a rollover') and oblique lessons in geopolitics.

Like Dizzee Rascal's debut, Boy in da Corner, its striking beat structures are radical and disorienting, drawing on grime, ragga and avant-dance music. MIA's collaborators come from all over: former Pulp man Steve Mackey, pop infiltrator Richard X, American hip hop shaper Diplo.

The record opens in a hail of digital shrapnel ('Banana Skit') before 'Pull up the People' kicks in, all backwards war whoops. But these percussive jitters are anchored by MIA's engaging, half-rapped, half-chanted vocal melodies.

There are more familiar sonic flurries here and there, some steel drums on 'Bingo', for instance, or a great synthetic brass fanfare on 'Bucky Done Gun'. The latter borrows its rhythms from baile funk, a recently unleashed form of Brazilian party music.

This internationalism of sound is part of what makes Arular so exhilarating. There's a song called 'Hombre' which starts off in near-Spanglish. 'Slang tang/ That's the MIA thang,' notes 'Pull up the People', referring to the landmark reggae rhythm, sleng teng. Meanwhile, the record's atmospheres race from the silly and familiar - 'You are a cutie/ Is your dad a dealer?/ Cos you're dope to me' - to the tragic and exotic. 'Sunshowers' tells of the killing of one of Arulpragasam's cousins in the war between the Tamil and Sinhalese groups that has riven Sri Lanka for decades.

Remarkably, given its content ('Like PLO I don't surrender'), this is one of Arular's poppier songs, a dreamy chorus contrasting with the horrified engagement of its verses.

For all its percussive and lyrical gunfire, though, Arular manages to be charming and vulnerable, too. You're never far away from a catchy nonsense rhyme or a frank sexual insight. It's an unmistakably personal record, an autobiography in a CD case. MIA's album is named for her father, still alive but lost to her through his commitment to the Tamil struggle.

Most affecting of all is 'Amazon', where Arulpragasam pleads to be taken home, just a mixed-up kid 'smoking on a Benson'. Impressive as her music is, you ultimately feel for MIA. Her album is a musical triumph but it is a personal one as well.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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