For some time now, the moribund world of US hip-hop has been leaning on Jamaican dancehall for an injection of fresh beats, fresh excitement and – in these preposterously Cribbed-out times – an overdue dose of reality. It might raise few headlines in the UK (save from when homophobia raises its ugly head) but, over the pond, dancehall has made real mainstream headway.
This could all change with the release of M.I.A.’s “Arular” which threatens to cross over the sound of modern Jamaica in a way that last year’s Wall Of Sound “Two Culture Clash” experiment could only dream.
Not that this is some cod Clash-style love-in. What Hounslow-born Maya Arulpragasam achieves with “Arular” is closer to a punk ideal of The Slits – almost professionally amateurish, her scattergun approach effortlessly appropriates the music of various different cultures and filters them through the most elementary equipment. Dancehall is the primary influence, but also one of many seismic collisions with several other genres.
Of course, the twist in this is that M.I.A. herself is something of a cultural and social magpie. Raised in Sri Lanka by her militant Tamil father (Arular was his revolutionary code name) and subsequently surviving both the poor and rich sides of London (from a racist council estate in Mitcham to hanging out with Elastica heiress Justine Frischmann) she has a more interesting personal history than most.
The results of such displacement and politicisation is writ large all over “Arular”, from the sloganeering of opener “Pull Up The People” (“Every gun in a battle is a son and daughter too”), to the clanging brass clarion on “Bucky Done Gun” or “Hombre” which takes the Diwali rhythm half-inched on Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh Oooh Uh Oooh)" and thrusts it back into a psychedelic wormhole.
That much of this magic was produced with help from Steve Mackey of Pulp, Frischmann and the ubiquitous Richard X makes it seem even more unlikely, but, for all that, this is undoubtedly M.I.A.’s vision. Her strange childlike patois defines the record and, soundtracked by all manner of clanking beats and bleeps, sustains an ambitiously thrilling thread. It’s not everyday an album namechecks Tamil revolutionaries, Timbaland, Lou Reed and the Pixies, even less an individual track (“Fire Fire”).
And, if the politics get overbearing, there’s also “Sunshowers” and “Galang” which are so poptastic that even the likes of Matthew Williamson could get into them (apparently they provided the soundtrack to his latest collection). In fact, given the chichi patronage of the fashionastas, “Arular”, as well as being a particularly great and brave album, could well be this year’s Portishead or Massive Attack. Revolutionary stuff.