Immigrant Songs

How Rihanna and M.I.A. delivered the most profound political statements of 2007

DISCUSSED
Rihanna "Umbrella" (#2 single)
Good Girl Gone Bad (#108 album)
M.I.A. Kala (#3 album)
"Paper Planes" (#6 single)

Remember when the Bush administration began its Iraq conquest, and everyone groused about the disturbing paucity of political music, either overt or covert? And, moreover, the disturbing paucity of political music you would actually want to listen to for reasons outside of your own principles? This year, two island chicks broke through that wall, dropping song-salve for terrorized minds and immigrant-power dance-floor joints that verbalized the nation's political despair and labyrinthine what-the-fuckitude. Barbadian transplant Rihanna and Sri Lankan perpetual immigrant M.I.A. both touted "world townie" music that dealt with the facts of this warpath-earth like the reality they are: reality like a flaming dogshit-bomb left on our doorstep. The Def Jam teen queen and the art-school nomad were both global ambassadors as or more effective than any jerkozoid stumping for Cap-In-Your-Ass Hill: one a wholesome mass-media vehicle for a genius songwriter's single with a secret antiwar history (though most people thought it was about Rihanna's boyfriend or something), the other an idea-flush, renegade 'fugee whose global-rhythm section and drumbeat field samples so democratized her album, her voice wasn't her voice so much as a megaphone for those non-Westerners with no voice.

With "Umbrella," Rihanna sang her heart out on one of the best pop songs of my lifetime, and one of the most emblematic American wartime lullabies since Five Stairsteps' "Ooh Child" gingerly rocked Vietnam-era children to sleep. But despite her quasi-reinvented persona (new haircut!) and semi-scandalous tabloid misadventures, she was mostly a stunning conduit for the song's songwriting/production team. The distinctive melodies that emergent Atlanta songwriter Terius "The-Dream" Nash and producer Christopher "Tricky" Stewart jammed out this year will be emblematic of an era, in the same way Ginuwine's "Pony" handed Timba-land the late '90s and ODB's "Got Your Money" predicted the Neptunes' early-'00s dominance. Dream and Tricky's '07 collabos, including J. Holiday's "Bed" and Dream's own effervescent "Shawty Is Da Sh*!," were strung indelibly together by the signature "Umbrella" stamp, that hiccupping eh, eh, eh vocal phrase, a device Dream kept on his Prince-y fantasia of a solo record, Love/Hate.

Rihanna's thinking about Iraq, honest
photo: Roberto d'Este
Rihanna's thinking about Iraq, honest

Before Good Girl Gone Bad, her third, Rihanna was a beautiful blank slate—whatever personality she brought on her own wasn't exactly dazzling us into her orbit. But even though her marketing masterminds' fruitful campaign to remake her rocker estilo was dubious for such a still-guarded young-woman-next-door, it was also a savvy defense against a music industry still reluctant to allow black female musicians out from under the "urban" banner. Just ask not-so-easily-marketable mega-personalites like "cyberhopper" Janelle Monáe, psychedelic jazz/hip-hop upstart Georgia Anne Muldrow, or Debbie Harried dance-hall singer Santogold, all of whom released excellent new material in 2007. Of course, Rihanna was in fact highly marketable—the face of both a covergirl and a Cover Girl, a Nike partnership, and an H&M clothing line.

And still, like its predecessors, the bulk of Good Girl was largely unremarkable—one exception being Dream and Tricky's feral wifey-takes-revenge anthem "Breakin' Dishes." But "Umbrella" was its own entity. With its pop eh's flung at us like rice at a wedding reception, the high-hat hooked us first: That ringing, brassy hit, playing tag with Rihanna's vocals, gleamed so clear and so true that it promised something bigger than ourselves—the sort of ephemeral godliness all great pop songs inspire. Its hummability was second to its emotional resonance; the soothing sweetness hit a nerve, its generosity nurturing us when we felt most naked and vulnerable. It felt like a pact, a promise.

Dream wrote "Umbrella" about his friends stationed in Iraq. "We losing a lot of those people over there," he told me during a VIBE interview in July. "I have a best friend that was in the Army. I have another friend that was injured. To me, 'Umbrella' meant a lot emotionally about what the country was going though." Doubt Rihanna was conjuring that while she cut the track, but the means superseded the message. Whether or not we knew we needed it, the song hit right where—and when—it mattered. Eh, eh, eh joined Soulja Boy's Youuuu! as text-message onomatopoeic catchphrase of the year.

Where Rihanna was a conduit, M.I.A. was a kinetic explosion waiting to blow, her fierce personality underscoring the humanist revolution incited by her music. "Paper Planes," Kala's most-heralded joint, remade the Clash's anticapitalist peace poem "Straight to Hell" into an anthem for our nihilistic eBay society: "We pack and deliver like UPS trucks," she sneers, equating the aerial bombardment of the drug game with home-shopping delivery. The "third-world democracy" Ms. Arulpragasam extolled helped redeem the first world's patronizing—indeed, deadly—attitude towards third-world countries. Drawing on her own immigrant experiences, she opened up her album to voices 'cross the way: "Jimmy" unraveled with Bollywood pop, while "Mango Pickle Down River" sampled the gum-branch didgeridoo of Wilcannia Mob, a group of underage Aboriginal rappers from New South Wales.

Kala sounds rough and complicated, a bang-a-gong-athon of drum field samples culled from its creator's diasporic vacation across Africa, Jamaica, and India—a forced vacation, after the U.S. refused her entry. But beneath its sound barrage, the record was gentle and needy, even with her grand-ass global-revolution slogans, a hardness that only underscored her tender undertones. Named after her own moms (whereas 2005's Arular honored her pops), M.I.A.'s initial thesis was to hinge on women's struggles worldwide: disproportionate poverty, child-rearing, that kind of birthright thing. Thus, it's a very motherly album: fierce, unfaltering, generous, protective, calculated, pants-wearing. Her world-town spirit gave it a sense of openness; she is a curator as much as she is an artist.

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