Live: M.I.A. Brings Big Beat Dance Party to High-Energy ‘Matangi’ Show in L.A.

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(Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

(Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

It’s been almost five years since M.I.A. crashed and burned on the main stage of Coachella 2009, where the controversial agitprop provocateur stood in front of tens of thousands of concertgoers looking equal parts bemused and bewildered.

The Sri Lankan-born singer was at the peak of her cultural close-up moment, with the GRAMMY-nominated song “Paper Planes” having unexpectedly earned anthem status since the 2007 release of her second album, Kala, thanks in large part to high-profile placement in the trailer for James Franco/Seth Rogan buddy flick Pineapple Express and its inclusion in the movie Slumdog Millionaire helping it reach critical mass.

With all of those Coachella concertgoers clamoring to see what all the hype was about, M.I.A. seemed to just shrug the whole thing off.

“I don’t really know how to bring it on the main stage, but we’re going to try,” she admitted at one point, as the crowd sagged and steadily started to dissipate well before the set’s conclusion.

It’s still up for debate if M.I.A. consciously tanked the show to deflect her growing celebrity, but her following album was the famously difficult  /\/\ /\ Y /\ full-length in 2010, which came with the most caustic tracks of her career, riding on aggressive Suicide samples and a notoriously contentious New York Times piece that angered the singer to the point of posting the writer’s phone number on Twitter and even recording a diss track about her.

It was an older, wiser and much more battle-ready M.I.A. who took the stage of the crammed L.A. nightspot the Belasco Theatre in downtown L.A. last night (Nov. 13), for one of only a handful of U.S. dates in support of her recently released fourth studio album, Matangi, before the end of the year.

Leading a small clutch of dancers, a DJ and an occasional drummer, M.I.A. confidently charged through a career-spanning set for the more than 2000 faithful fans who packed into the historical venue for the second of a sold-out two-night stand. She generated a high-energy dance party that was more celebratory than chaotic, and showed the singer more than able to control a rowdy audience ready for action.

The colorful crowd was an extremely well-dressed mix of L.A. party kids and beat aficionados swathed in high-fashion street couture looks in homage to M.I.A.’s famous style turns, including her dancers being clad in pieces from her new capsule collection with Versus Versace.

Still embroiled with the NFL for flipping a middle-finger while performing with Madonna during the halftime show during Super Bowl XLVI (an act she now calls “godly”), M.I.A. stalked the stage like a rapper, occasionally falling in line with her dancers to throw down some moves of her own.

Older songs like “XR2,” “World Town” and “Pull Up the People” elicited immediate responses, with people bouncing and chanting along lustily to the bottom-heavy tunes, but still not loud enough to contend with the stomach-churning bass being pumped out of the PA.

Matangi numbers including the Drake-baiting “Y.A.L.A.” (You Always Live Again) and “Double Bubble Trouble” were as well-received as the more seasoned cuts, with M.I.A. daring to venture into the first few rows of the sweat-drenched crowd, utilizing audience members to hold her aloft as she roared into the microphone.

While “Paper Planes” generated a sea of cellphones and lighters to accentuate its perpetual anthem status, it’s actually the single “Bad Girls,” which originally appeared on the free Vicki Leekx mixtape released on the last day of 2010 and shows up again on Matangi, that should really stand as M.I.A.’s signature song.

Combining Middle Eastern melodies with raw trap beats and a death-defying music video that comes harder than most “gangster” hip-hop clips, M.I.A.’s delicate balance between beauty, danger and karmic politics comes into sharp focus.

Serving as the last song of the night, the cocksure swagger of “Bad Girls” succinctly summarizes M.I.A.’s fearless approach to affecting some sort of social change via her bombastic send-ups of patriarchy, classism and racialized realities with just a single defiant line: “Who’s gonna stop me when I’m coming through?”

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