1. Top 5 of 2011 Part One: Gangsta

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    Gangsta - tUnE-yArDs

    I was a latecomer to the M.I.A. bandwagon (that really seemed to peak in late 2008) , but as so many did, I found her music exciting and refreshing in a way that caught me quite off-guard. The songs that I liked the most, "Bucky Done Gun", "Sunshowers", "Galang" and the inescapable "Paper Planes" were a staggering collision of musical styles, lyrical content and aesthetic. Jamaican dancehall and grimy London electronic beats supported rapid-fire bursts of sharply self-aware commentary on the global, the intensely personal and the the confluence of those worlds. Weed and sex and poverty and excess. Injustice and liberation. It was a crazy-ass mix, and I was totally sold.

    The follow-up album did not sell me however. This is really a topic for another article, but 2010s "/\/\ /\ Y /\" had nowhere near the impact on me as either "Arular" or "Kala". Where the first two had seemed so sharp, so immediate and captivating - "Maya" just seemed kind of...muddy. I bring all of this up here because that same startled excitement I had when listening to the first couple M.I.A. albums came flooding back to me this fall, and picked up right where I wished "Maya" had done. The band is tUnE-yArDs and the disc, "WHOKILL".

    WHOKILL sounds like Fela Kuti and the Dirty Projectors and M.I.A. and a thousand other good things, all while sounding pretty damn original. Merrill Garbus, a funky-ass bass player and a couple saxophones make a whole variety of delightful noises - sometimes very rough and abrasive, and others soft and sweet. The album is dope, and a number of tracks could have made this list ("Bizness" and "My Country" in particular) but for sheer pedal-to-the-floor ear-grabbing, "Gangsta" wins out by a measure.

    Distant sirens start the track, followed by huge drums and fuzzed-out bass. The drums cut out, and another siren - one made by the human voice - enters, and distorts. A harmony drops on top of the line, and all of this builds until, it too, sharply cuts. A powerful, neigh-androgynous voice demands "What's a boy to do if he'll never be a gangsta?!", and it all come shooting back together.

    At this point, it has been 45 seconds.

    "Gangsta" rules. It gets to be a lot by the end of the track, and some people will surely find it overwhelming and not their cup of tea. That's cool. But for those who can get on board, there's much to marvel at, and shake your body like a crazy person to. Little touches like the intentional de-tuning of the word 'sound' make this track absolutely fly out of the speakers. It's raw, exciting and a little bit frightening for good measure.

    The intoxicating, worldly and chaotic blend that an artist like M.I.A. did so well is back in full force here. And holy does it sound cool.


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