Buzzing in the Bassbin

M.I.A. is blowing up in New York, but will she go pop?

But along with the praise came some rumblings about Arulpragasam's intentions. Craig Willingham, who saw two shipments (totaling about 250 copies) of Piracy move quickly as music manager of Mondo Kim's in New York (the only other retailer Diplo says he provided with copies), says it's a "boutique" counterpart of the many other mix tapes he stocks.

"Piracy Funds Terrorism has more of an album approach," he says. "Mix tapes are more driven by the street scene, and they thrive on competition between MCs and DJs. Piracy is about setting the context for how M.I.A., Diplo, and her management want her to be viewed."

In the wake of the more leftfield Arular, Piracy is best seen as an introduction to Arulpragasam's versatility and her ability to enhance whatever surrounds her. British pop-head producer Richard X, who offered his services to Arulpragasam soon after her first twelve-inch, "Galang," made joyful, idiosyncratic noise as a white label in 2003, and who ended up co-producing Arular, says this kind of musical distortion defines Arulpragasam.

The hybridized sounds of Maya Arulpragasam speak truth to power
David Titlow
The hybridized sounds of Maya Arulpragasam speak truth to power

"People were probably disappointed if they thought an M.I.A. mix tape would be really militant, really grimy," says Richard X from London during a phone interview. "Maybe they get depressed when Salt-N-Pepa come in, but that's Maya. That's what she is: surprising. She can get away with anything, I think."

And that comes from practice. Arulpragasam says that during her younger years in London, in a bid to fit in somewhere, anywhere, she fluttered through various scenes. In a way, Arular is the wringing out of a cultural sponge, "a refugee thing," as she calls it, and a portrait of transience right down to the way her voice doesn't quite sing, but also rarely settles on staccato, melodic stasis. She calls her flagrant borrowing "a good thing," reasoning that it offers greater awareness of musical worlds that might be ignored otherwise.

"The idea of her not being authentic is snobbish," says Richard X. "This is what good music is all about -- taking bits from different places."

When Arulpragasam says, "Pull up the people" on Arular's "Pull Up the People," she answers herself with "Pull up the poor." But her reach doesn't stop there. She may claim otherwise, but her music's populist, something-for-everyone intent definitely makes it pop, even if it never grazes the Top 40. Though there's a chance Arulpragasam will integrate in the relatively open-minded world of R&B radio, her work and philosophy contrast with the inherent globalism of her would-be contemporaries, namely Madonna, who early in the Eighties declared to her already-adoring American audience that she wanted "to rule the world." Twenty years later, Arulpragasam just wants pieces of it.

"Now I'm really getting into the game," she says, armed with her major-label deal. "Now I'm really going to have an opportunity to shake things up."

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