Arular, the long-awaited debut album from M.I.A., opens with a 30-second language lesson that has the MC, Maya Arulpragasam, sounding like a cockney Harry Belafonte parodying that two-headed monster from Sesame Street.
"Ba...na...na," she sounds out slowly over syncopated, angular beats, mimicking her own language lessons from almost two decades earlier. Back then, the now-28-year-old MC and producer was new to South London after emigrating with her family from Sri Lanka to escape that country's ongoing civil war. She ends the track by playfully insisting, "Getcha self an ej-u-ca-shun!"
The skit is a helpful compass to orient listeners to the record ahead. Not only is the stripped-bare beat a foundational element of M.I.A.'s sound, but the theme of learning to read-or, more specifically, learning to read English-is at the core of her message. You can hear it when she talks about her father, a Tamil Tiger she calls a "free-dum fight-ah," her Sri Lankan and English accents dueling it out while she struggles to ej-u-cate us all about oppression, war and badass grimy beats "to make you bang bang bang." Oftentimes she can't find the words; it is then that Jamaican dancehall lends M.I.A. more than just its rhythms and cadences but its gibberish as well. "Slang tang," she says on "Pull Up the People," "that's the M.I.A. thang." Later, on the U.K. hit single "Galang," she extends the lesson: "Boys say wa," she explains. "Girls say wa wa." But M.I.A.'s nonsensical vocal stylings are more just than a hip slang vocab. In the last minute of the song, a choir of M.I.A.'s wail a wordless, exultant coda ("Ya ya heeey!") that cracks voices and impels hands skyward. It makes "Galang" as chilling a dance song you'll hear all year.
Global pop music, however you care to define it, has been keeping this semi-secret superstar-to-be in its wings for a while now-ever since that hip-hoppy electronica "Galang" started bubbling up in London dance clubs way back in 2003. She had no record, much less a record deal. Just one single-and in the ensuing year, the song was deservedly heralded by critics and dancehall junkies, devoured by DJs, mashed-up, remixed and run through the audio blog mill, while M.I.A.'s star shot so high as to land her on Fader's cover, below the headline "Music's now thing."
Of course, as a "now thing," M.I.A. was expected-reasonably-to release an album, like, yesterday. Fans were sated in the meantime by Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, a collection of mixed demos produced by Philadelphia DJ Diplo of Hollertronix, self-released by M.I.A. and distributed over the Internet. Now, the album that finally houses "Galang" confirms what the fans suspected: M.I.A. is no one-off "female Dizzee Rascal" (as her detractors are wont to say) but a genuine talent. The next thing.
Considering the advance hype surrounding the release of Arular, the mere fact that the album lives up to expectations is reason to be impressed. There are at least four tracks here that are better than "Galang," which appears as the final track, rightfully casting attention toward the lesser-known songs. "Pull Up the People" and "Fire Fire" are immediate standouts, built around M.I.A.'s politics-in-the-club blueprint, and further exploring the depth of honesty she can achieve, unironically, within a sound as glitzy and synthetic as a Bollywood sound stage. "Sunshowers," the album's second single, is even better, pairing Arulpragasam's addictive rap with the record's only sing-song chorus (and still the politics are there: "Like PLO we don't surrender").
By the time "Galang" finally appears, M.I.A. has already made the case she once relied on that song to make: This isn't only the future of music; it's the present. And then that coda hits, reinvigorated by the fact that it's no longer just the perfect end to a fantastic song but also to a superb album.
Arular will be released Tuesday, March 22.