George Harrison may be dead, but Americans can't help but turn their heads, as he did, toward India for spiritual and artistic inspiration. While Madonna attends self-help seminars with Deepak Chopra, city-dwelling hipsters rent Bollywood features, and it all plays nicely into the hands of Rajinder Rai, a.k.a. Panjabi MC. After all, when Jay-Z hears an artist's track at a Swiss nightclub (in Rai's case, his infectious "Mundian to Bach Ke") and decides to rhyme over the top of it for a revamped version, that artist has a chance for the big payoff. And while no track on Beware, Panjabi MC's big introduction to the U.S. market, is as immediately catchy as the Jay-Z collaboration, "Beware of the Boys," it shows that Rai has what it takes to compete in the global 'hood.
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Not surprisingly, "Beware" (the title is shortened on the album) sets the tone throughout: The instrumentation and Eastern harmonics of bhangra -- the traditional Indian music popular in the dance-music community of Coventry, England, from which Rai hails -- are combined with Western jeep beats and rhyming from a host of obscure MCs. Oddly enough for a person who calls himself an MC, Rai sings instead of rhymes on the record. He even includes more traditional Indian folk numbers like "Ghalla Gurian" to give the pop-hungry tourists a taste of his music's broader cultural context. Nevertheless, the album has a blatant commercial sheen, even with the dhols and the foreign-language libretto intact. But Rai himself is an impassioned singer, and makes himself immediately at home in these newfangled settings, making sure his appeal loses nothing in the translation. Of course, the U.S. streets will have the final say as to whether Panjabi MC is a one-hit wonder or India's first ambassador of hip-hop.