Glowing hula hoops, pigment bombs, pink stilettos, booming bass—oh, and an international fugitive via Skype chat.
Written by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
“Truth is like a rotten tooth,” M.I.A. observes on “Bring the Noize,” a single from her fourth studio album Matangi, which drops next Tuesday. “You got to spit it out.”
Much truth was spat during her concert last night at New York's Terminal 5, starting with the opening act, Julian Assange, who couldn't make it in person since he faces all manner of threats—ranging from assassination to international extradition—for various unauthorized disclosures published on his fearlessly truth-spitting website Wikileaks. Assange delivered his opening remarks vis Skype chat from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, which has granted him political asylum for the time being. It was a perfect gesture of rebellion from M.I.A., whose father fought with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and whose latest release is named for a Hindu goddess of music and learning with special powers that include vanquishing enemies of the people by skillful use of supreme knowledge.
After a brief DJ set, M.I.A. took the stage rocking shiny gold and silver garments, dark shades, and pink stiletto heels. She kicked things off with "Bring The Noize," whose automatic-weapon onomatopoeia hook had hundreds of gun fingers in the air from jump. (The gunfingers were only slightly outnumbered by mobile recording devices, which was also fitting for a multimedia maestro like M.I.A.) "Vicki Leekx bitches, back by dope demand," she roared, referring to her 2010 Assange-inspired mixtape, and the eclectic crowd packed into the three-story venue—including a generous portion of rave kids in post-Halloween gear—roared back. By the time she got to the rabble-rousing punch line, "It's not me and you, it's the fucking banks!" M.I.A. had the place feeling like an Occupy Wall Street rally.
"For 'Galang' you're gonna need this," she explained as she flung the mysterious parcels as far into the cavernous venue as she possibly could, whipping her long black hair with the effort.
But never let it be said that Maya Arulpragasam doesn’t know how to throw a party. Her Hit-Boy–produced jam "Warrior" opened with a meditative "Ommmmm" then suddenly the place was flooded with bass, beats, and electric multicolored hula hoops. The Matangi tour stage set is a grand spectacle—with an elaborate light show, ornately dressed female dancers, live drummer and DJ, and only one dude, a fit young dancer, on the stage—but her live show remains totally scalable. An M.I.A. concert is basically a street rave, built around two turntables and a microphone. And even though hers wasn't turned up loud enough last night—much of her London slang was drowned out by those earth-shaking 808s—she kept the crowd locked in for every second of the show.
Part of that was due to her irresistible personal energy, and part of it due to the fact that her nonverbal hooks—"Ya Ya Heeeeey" and "Na Na Naaaaa"—communicate the sort of direct emotion that works on a level beyond language. At times it doesn't really matter what she's saying, her audience simply feels her. (This makes all the Vicki Leekx truth-spitting tricky at times, but Maya's betting that just enough message seeps in here and there.) As she once put it in a song, "I bongo with my lingo."
Speaking of which, M.I.A. remains unafraid to rap the line from "Sunshowers" that got her into so much mixup back in 2004—"like PLO we don’t surrender." As soon as she uttered those words, she stepped offstage and plunged into the crowd, leaving her background singer to sing the lovely hook over and over. But she soon returned to perform an extended remix of the tune from her debut album, Arular.
And then it was time for "Galang," the song that put her on the map in this U.S. back in 2005. After the DJ played a few bars, Maya instructed her to "pull up" and then asked, mischeviously, "Who wants to hear 'Galang'?” When the crowd begged for more she began throwing small bundles of something into the crowd. "For 'Galang' you're gonna need this," she explained as she flung the mysterious parcels as far into the cavernous venue as she possibly could, whipping her long black hair with the effort.
But it was a bait-and-switch! She had her DJ drop a new cut, the rub-a-dub reggae tune "Double Bubble Trouble." The song's refrain—"Uh-ohhhh, you're in trouble"—might have been a subliminal warning to unsuspecting concert-goers as they broke open the packets she had chucked their way.
By the time the DJ dropped "Galang," whose digital dancehall blurps and bloops sound every bit as futuristic today as they did when M.I.A. first deployed them back in 2003, small explosions of colored mist were starting to appear throughout the venue like tiny teargas cannisters. M.I.A. burst one on the head of a dude she'd invited up from the crowd to dance. What better way to make the "purple haze" of "Galang" real than to supply the audience with sacks of powdered dye? (The stuff stained—giving some fans a lasting souvenir of the evening.)
There's nothing like having your face and clothes stained with multicolored pigments to get folks loose. With the j'ouvert vibes in full swing, the "Ya Ya Heeeeey" at the end of "Galang" was deafening. "Bucky Done Gun" kept the energy at a fever pitch after which M.I.A. launched into “Walk With Me” skipping the sing-songy part and launching straight into the uptempo bit, keeping the energy turnt all the way up. Just when it seemed things couldn't get any crazier, M.I.A. dove into the crowd, surfing on a sea of hands.
After a brief DJ intermission, which featured an ill remix of Sean Paul’s “Infiltrate,” M.I.A. returned to the stage in gold short shorts, a red Matangi T-shirt, an ornate baseball cap, and a long pink veil such as Barbara Eden might have worn on I Dream of Jeannie. The encore opened with a bang as she dropped “Paper Planes” and everyone in the place did the four-gunshot hook with gusto. From there she launched straight into "Bad Girls"—and yes, she did it well. M.I.A.'s worked out some cool lean-with-it-rock-with-it dance moves for this Danja-produced banger, ones that make it look like she's spinning the steering wheel of a Beemer in the desert. She ditched the shades and headgear for the final selection of the night, her new song "Exodus"/“Sexodus” which features vocals from The Weeknd. That track ends with a deep question—"You can have it all…but baby what for?”
The crowd was left to ponder that one while they lined up at the restroom to try and rinse the powder off their faces. Like the memories from this amazing night, it wouldn't wash away easily.