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It is fitting that just hours before M.I.A. takes to the stage in London the internet, news broadcasts and streets are filled with the sounds of chanting and smashed glass as the student finance riots cause havoc at the Conservative Party Millbank HQ.
Just like the students who smashed windows and stormed offices in protest over the plans to raise University fees, M.I.A. has spent much of 2010 in a battle with authority. Having started a confusing but intriguing war with Google and Facebook, Maya Arulpragasam has since run her cross-hairs over targets as diverse as the CIA and New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg. Again, like the Millbank rioters, you get the feeling that she is perhaps seduced more by the idea of rebellion and confrontation than she is truly acting in the name of her cause but it remains fascinating to watch nonetheless.
Her new album /\/\/\Y/\ might have alienated the search engines of the world but it has also put something of a damp cloth on the critical acclaim and cultural cache M.I.A. had built up since her emergence in 2005. For the first time in her career, the London born rapper is facing a backlash meaning that tonight she has a point to prove.
Bounding on stage flanked by two B-Boy dancers, a DJ and a video backdrop so bright it could light up the whole of Brixton, never mind this venue, M.I.A. brings the spirit of carnival with her. As soon as the beat drops on ‘Bucky Done Gone’ the crowd goes wild and as the riot rhythms slip into ‘Galang’ the hyped atmosphere only increases. The cold, November night outside feels a million miles away as the packed crowd are taken on a worldwide tour of musical explosions from the bhangra sounds of ‘XR2’ to the reggae skank of ‘It Takes A Muscle’, M.I.A.’s musical influences coming with more stamps on their passport than Michael Palin.
Having rarely toured and given very few interviews, it is hard to get a grip of who M.I.A. is as both an artist and as a person. It is well documented that she is partner of Ben Bronfman, heir to Edgar Bronfmanm CEO of Warner Music which is perhaps where anything of a backlash stems from. Indeed, New York Times writer Lyn Hirschberg felt so and trashed the star in an interview which will make M.IA.’s career as synonymous with truffle fries as it will do with paper planes. Having spent the rest of the year veiled by a mask of garish websites and confusing Tweets it takes the warmth and spirit in songs such as ‘World Town’ and ‘Boys’, the latter of which comes with a free flowing stage invasion, to remind us that she is more than just an ever increasing list of URL’s and conspiracy theories.
With her game tied tight, not a beat is left hanging as M.I.A. climbs a speaker stack to hit every last rhyme on ‘Steppin’ Up’ straight out of the park. The colder, more aggressive nature of the newer material, like’Born Free’ (tonight minus the Ginger slaying antics of its Romain Garvas directed video) remains intense but feels like a step in the wrong direction in contrast with such a vibrant and urgent back catalogue. The lack of brilliant single ‘XXXO’ on the set list also feels like a mis-step.
Fans may feel short changed with a set that lasts just under an hour but as gun fingers are raised to the sound of cash registers ringing on set closer ’Paper Planes’ you can’t help but feel tonight saw the human face of M.I.A. step out from behind the avatar.
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