For those who use music as a compass through different countries and contexts, M.I.A. is a magnetic master-stroke: Born in Sri Lanka and raised in multi-culti London, she makes the kind of rootless music that sounds grown from everywhere and nowhere at once. Her backstory includes a father on the run as a "freedom fighter" in Sri Lanka, an art-school stint that led to ties with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, and a self-styled residency among the disparate but related street-sounds of the world. Musically, M.I.A. waves a pointed wand over Brazilian favela funk, Jamaican dancehall, and East London grime—sounds on the radar of just about every music fiend with a blog and a backed-up download cue.
Debates have raged over M.I.A.'s teetering revolutionary stance—"I'm a third-world refugee terrorist or whatever," she told Rolling Stone—but there's little question about Arular's righteous rush and timely tenor. The album orbits around "Galang," an underground smash that praises "razor blades" and "purple haze" over a blistering limp-strut beat. The song sounds raw and cheap, its anthemic heft drawing from a dashed-off manifesto crinkled up and used as rolling paper. A similar blaze blows through Arular all but unabated: "Pull Up The People" opens with a paean to the poor intoned over a fractious military march, before "Bucky Done Gun" speeds off through a favela blast of horns and dizzy conga breaks.
As an MC, M.I.A. sounds brash and sassy, a party-starter first and a polemicist second. Her insurgent fantasies come across in "Sunshowers" and the hidden track "M.I.A.," in which she flips a tribute to the Palestinian Liberation Organization and flips the finger to President Bush. M.I.A.'s outspoken interviews and overall militant aesthetic make certain lines rise to the surface more than they might otherwise, but it's still hard to divine too much meaning from riffs that rhyme "PLO" with "I don't surrendo." Troubling radical chic or not, such sentiments blow idly through the humid, sticky breeze of Arular, an album whose mind for agitation answers most directly to infectious beats and boasts.