M.I.A.: Rapper and Daughter of Revolution

The daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, Sri Lankan M.I.A. is now a rap sensation in England. The 28-year-old is known as much for her music as her life story. She combines the rhythms of global cultures with lyrics that some say incite revolution. Critic Oliver Wang reviews her CD Arular.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some other major entertainment news this morning about one of the most talked about CDs of the year. It's called "Arular," the debut album by a rapper from Sri Lanka who grew up in London. She goes by the name M.I.A and has become a sensation not only for her rhythms and rhymes but also for her politics. Reviewer Oliver Wang says listeners would do best to keep their ears on the music.

OLIVER WANG reporting:

M.I.A.'s back story has been as widely touted as her music. Born Maya Arulpragasam, the 28-year-old is a daughter of a Tamil revolutionary. As a child, her family was uprooted by the long-running Sri Lankan civil war and she eventually settled and came of age in London. In that cultural nexus, M.I.A. absorbed the styles of everything from Jamaican patois to hip-hop lyricism, blending them together in her unique form of wordplay.

(Soundbite of "Hombre")

M.I.A.: (Singing) You can stick me, stab me, grind me or wind me. Fuck, we can even ask your wifey, rich bored at home with a kiddie. She don't know about you getting nookie. Member when you first start to call me? You had a ticket waitin' for me, said you wanna meet in Miami so we can start a family. Excuse me little Hombre, take my number, call me. I can get squeaky so you can come and oil me.

WANG: It's easy to see why M.I.A. has stood out so prominently, especially against the current backdrop of bubble-gum pop and gangsta rap. It's not every day you chance upon a Sri Lankan British singer with a Kingston-meets-cockney brogue, rapping about revolution.

(Soundbite of music)

M.I.A.: (Singing) I was sippin' on a Rubicon thinking about (unintelligible) revolution, cutting up the coupons, saving for a telephone. Can I call home, please can I go home; sippin' on a Rubicon thinking about (unintelligible) revolution, cutting up the coupons, saving for a telephone. Can I call home, please can I go home...

WANG: Many music critics have played up her exoticness as if she were the love child of Neneh Cherry and Che Guevara, or a prodigal daughter of the Third World, returning home to sound-bomb the empire.

(Soundbite of music)

M.I.A.: (Singing) London, quiet down, I need to make a sound; New York, quiet down, I need to make a sound; Kingston, quiet down, I need to make a sound; Brazil, quiet down, I need to make a sound.

(Soundbite of brass instruments and drums)

M.I.A.: (Singing) They're comin' through the window, they're comin' through the door. They're bustin' down the big wall and soundin' the horn. They're comin' through the window, they're comin' through the door. They're bustin' down the big wall and soundin' the horn.

WANG: If M.I.A. has been crowned pop's rebel princess, she's knowingly cultivated that image, too. Her video for the single "Galang" incorporates colorful stencil art of tanks and missiles, and the cover of "Arular" features Arabic script that may or may not represent anything. Her ...(unintelligible) lyrics draw on alluring rhetoric of insurrection, but they're more like cheery protest slogans, long on style but a bit short on substance.

(Soundbite of "Pull Up the People")

M.I.A.: (Singing) Pull up the people, pull up the poor, pull up the people, pull up the poor, pull up the people, pull up the poor, pull up the people, pull up the poor...

WANG: Ultimately, if M.I.A.'s politics lack any real force, it's her music that speaks the loudest. It's telling, on her most explicitly political song, "Pull Up the People," it's actually the bass that gets the last word in.

(Soundbite of "Pull Up the People")

M.I.A.: (Singing) Slang, tang, that's the M.I.A. thang. I got the bombs to make you blow, I got the beats to make you bang.

(Soundbite of bass)

WANG: For all the intrigue surrounding M.I.A.'s heritage and politics, it's her music that makes the most powerful and compelling contribution to the pop world. "Arular" plays like the soundtrack to the best video game never made, and while M.I.A.'s lyrics may suggest tense times ahead, her music is all about release, with its relentless energy and giddy intensity. M.I.A. sets out to shake up the world by getting us to shake ourselves.

(Soundbite of music)

M.I.A.: (Singing) You can watch TV, watch the media, but you don't wish they would take over, take over...

INSKEEP: Oliver Wang is a music critic and scholar based in San Francisco. He's the editor of "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide."

As we mentioned, there's much talk about M.I.A. and tomorrow we'll hear from the man who helped spark the M.I.A. buzz.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of music)

M.I.A.: (Singing) And you go ...(unintelligible) You can be a follower, but who's your leader? Break that circle, it could kill ya. You can be a follower, but who's your leader...

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