M.I.A. / M.I.A. and Diplo / Diplo

Arular / Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1 / Favela on Blast

(XL / Hollertronix / Ninja Tune; 2005/2004/2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 29 December 2007

Okay, so here’s the challenge: how do you review these three albums without either writing a small thesis on the globalization of hip-hop, the rising wave of raggaeton and baile funk or Maya Arulpragasam’s personal history and political views? Oh, right: focus on the music. If you’re looking for yet another overblown sociological analysis of Ms. Arulpragasam’s music, I am terribly sorry to disappoint. There’s simply too much music to talk about here.

So let’s start at the beginning. In March of 2004, with rather little fanfare, Diplo (half of the production team of Hollertronix) released Favela on Blast, a collection of baile funk tracks from Rio. Diplo got into baile funk after a few trips to Brazil in ’04; as he puts it, “punk rock + new wave samples + little kids screaming + miami bass + outsider music industry = most exciting thing going on right now.” And he’s got a point: the music represented on Favela on Blast, which was released after Diplo’s first trip to Rio, is the sort of logical, ass-shaking outcome of decades of hip-hop getting sexier and running full-tilt into the afro-latin rhythms of Latin America. In many ways it’s a mixture that makes perfect sense, and yet the potential of the whole exceeds that of the parts.

As a mix, Favela on Blast is rather daunting: it clocks in at just over 31 minutes of solid music, moving from the pimped out horn section and chanting of the first few minutes into more recognizable pop territory by the middle section. Technically the mix is stellar: though there are one or two jolting transitions, Diplo generally fuses tracks perfectly.

Favela on Blast provides an excellent primer for those curious about the genre. Anyone confused by the three “baile funk” tracks on Piracy Funds Terrorism, or the intro to “10 Dollar,” or “Hombre,” can refer to the first 10 minutes or so of Favela on Blast for a good summary of the potential of chanted Portuguese, sick percussion lines and wide-ranging instrumental choices. From there Diplo ups the ante, mixing in elements of American pop culture. “Row, Row, Row your Boat” morphs into “Ice Ice Baby,” which is even weirder than it sounds when all the lyrics are in Portuguese (another great choice is Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” kicking in at 27:04). There are a couple of especially noteworthy sections, namely the synth-heavy, spliced-up track that kicks in at 15:29 and the smoother-than-silk funk-soul song that begins at 20:23.

Somewhere along the line, Diplo became aware of Maya Arulpragasam. There’s always the question of where and when, but if I were a betting man I’d say “Galang” had something to do with it. Originally released several years back, “Galang” is arguably the finest single released this millennium. As far as anyone can tell the entire song is gibberish, but built on top of a wall of handclaps, filthy synth lines, tribal drums, and cowbell the lyrics hardly matter. It feels like the sort of Timbaland should be responsible for, right down to the perfect timing on the final breakdown, but instead it’s Justine Frischmann of Elastica who shares production credit.

For a producer steeped in baile funk, Arulpragasam must seem like something of a revelation. M.I.A. is never much of a traditional rapper—her delivery always seems to be as more of a chant or shout than an honest-to-god rap. There are certainly counterexamples (parts of “Bingo,” “10 Dollar” and “Galang” especially), but much of the time she seems to be more laying out a killer chorus or hook than traditionally rapping. Arguably this is just an element of British rap and the grime movement, but regardless of the origins or relative merits of the approach (I’m a fan), it fits baile funk like a glove.

So boy meets girl and Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1 is born. Around this time the New Yorker is publishing full-page photos of M.I.A. and dissecting the cultural impact of her music. For an artist who hasn’t yet released their debut record, M.I.A. is riding high. From this standpoint, Piracy doesn’t make all that much sense. M.I.A. is showing her hand and throwing down a high mark that her debut will have to meet. Now anyone with a cable modem and some curiosity can hear all the rhymes she has planned for Arular thrown over a collection of phenomenal beats and mixes courtesy of Diplo, M.I.A.’s “favorite producer” (his words not mine).

Opening with a viciously sparse remix of “Galang,” Diplo really connects when he throws Lil’ Vicious in on the second track and lets him spit over a stripped down bridge. Still, it’s his handling of the fantastic “Fire Fire” that deserves the most praise. For “Fire Bam” he strips away the giant drums that propel the song on Arular and instead relies on light percussion and a simple guitar loop, letting M.I.A.’s verses shine. Then he lets the drums fall back in and drops the song onto the Bangle’s “Walk Like an Egyptian.” As if that weren’t enough, M.I.A. runs off the Kill Bill strings at the end of the track straight into a mash-up with Missy Elliott, the artist she probably most deserves comparison to in terms of style and flair.

The whole Piracy mix is a fun listen, never challenging you too much to name that sample, but still steadily throwing the references in. Diplo manages to do better than Arular with both his choice of Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop” under “MIA” and the match-made-in-heaven “Big Pimpin” combo with “Bingo.” “Sunshowers” gets sped-up a bit, but fails to connect quite as well, if only because the remarkably catchy repetition of the chorus under the third verse of the original doesn’t come through nearly as well here. “China Girl,” the Eurythmics-heavy remix of “10 Dollar” is stellar, but doesn’t quite have the hard-edged sex appeal of the original. Just like Arular, Piracy ends with a bang: the sassy “URAQT” runs into Diplo’s Jay-Z-indebted “Bingo,” the sort of one-two punch that leaves listeners begging for more.

So by now it’s 2005 and Arular still isn’t on shelves. For an album without that many samples, it took XL a remarkably long time to clear them. Original promos were sent out, the album was delayed, but now it’s here. Talking with people about the record two things become immediately clear: a lot of people are surprised by how little filler there is on the record, and everyone seems to have a different favorite song.

The filler argument is somewhat questionable. While the number of great songs on Arular is surprising given M.I.A.’s success with singles (both “Galang” and the equally good if not somewhat controversy-prone “Sunshowers”), there definitely are a few songs that fall short. The skits are fine and kept to a minimum, but the kidnap-fantasy “Amazon” feels forced, especially over such a static beat, and “Hombre” doesn’t cover much new ground.

“Pull up the People” is a good opener, getting listeners in the spirit for plenty of chanting, handclaps, quick raggaeton beats, and 505 bleeps and whistles. “Bucky Done Gun” reeks of sex appeal, those tribal drums on “Fire Fire” lay out a propulsive background for M.I.A.’s quick verses, and “Bingo,” even over a steel drum beat that’s a bit too “Big Pimpin’” for comfort, is M.I.A.’s most vicious track. She’s practically sneering out her lines, and her declaration that the beat “is made in fuckin’ lon-d-d-don,” is one of the highlights of the album.

Arular builds to a finish, opening the final section with the social commentary of “10 Dollar,” which beats out Piracy’s “China Girl” if only for the nasty refrain of, “What can I get for 10 dollar? / Everything you want.” “Sunshowers” and “Galang” are both basically flawless; even if “Sunshowers” is just toying with American hip-hop sung-chorus styles, it does so far better than the competition, and the controversy regarding the PLO line is nonsense. Anybody who wants an actual political track need only wait for “MIA,” the hidden track buried at the end of “Galang,” and one of the album’s best songs. The beat is thick with synth lines and rubbery drums, and M.I.A. spits hard about the media, the Bush Administration and refugee realities.

Arular beats out most everything I’ve heard this year in terms of creativity, energy, dance-ability and fun. It’s catchy, original in its mix of styles, and signals the entrance of an impressive talent onto the hip-hop scene. Still, Piracy may ultimately be the more exciting product, witnessing the brilliant fusion of baile funk, American pop culture, Sri Lankan revolutionary politics, refugee authenticity, grime and UK dancehall by a white guy from Philly and a Sri Lankan living in London. Arular never seems quite as broad, and suffers ever-so-slightly for it. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to see M.I.A.’s debut as among this year’s finest albums.