You only need to see M.I.A. in concert to remember why she had everyone so excited in 2003, when she first came on the scene. A vision in gold lamé, the Sri Lankan Londoner was a commanding presence, kicking off the tour for Matangi, her fourth album, on Nov. 1 at Terminal 5 in New York City. She moved coolly onstage, gyrating with a confident swagger, running through a collection of banging new material and old favorites over the roars of eager fans — fans who spanned all ages, some of whom must've been just 8 years old when M.I.A. released her first album. The energy in the venue was electric; from the booming, rattling songs to the colorful, flashing lights and lit-up hula hoops, to the colored holi powder she passed out and her own hyping of the crowd, it felt like a riot. This is why we need M.I.A..
It's been a long road for Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam. Her first two albums (2005's Arular, named after her father, and 2007's Kala, named after her mother) introduced her to the world as one of the most exciting, forward-thinking, provocative artists out there; her music was a fresh, global take on hip-hop and –– though her audience and critics didn't always get it — was actually about something (namely bringing attention to the Sri Lankan civil war). Kala was one of the best-reviewed albums of the '00s and brought her massive success thanks to songs like "Paper Planes" and "Boyz." But the heights she reached made her fall from cultural favor all the more jarring.
"Truffle-gate," as the 2010 incident was widely called by the media, was a really silly occurrence that did a lot to tarnish and trivialize M.I.A.'s image. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, writer Lynn Hirschberg quoted the rapper as saying she wanted to be an outsider, while, in Hirschberg's words, "eating a truffle-flavored French fry" — fries that, it turned out later, were ordered by Hirschberg herself. The profile raised questions about M.I.A.'s authenticity and knowledge of the Sri Lankan politics she frequently discussed in interviews and music. Was she doing more harm than good by talking about the Sri Lankan camps so frequently? Was she "glamorizing terrorism"? Is the burqa imagery just hollow sensationalism? How could someone be engaged to the insanely rich Ben Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune and son of former Warner Music Group CEO, while talking about refugee camps and the Sri Lankan civil war? (M.I.A. and Bronfman split in 2012.) How could someone eating truffle fries and living in luxury know anything about the nuances and intricacies of military politics? After all the drama, she became some kind of punchline.
M.I.A.'s third album, 2010's Maya (or /\/\ /\ Y /\, as it's stylized), which was released shortly after that infamous "truffle-gate" interview came out, also didn't fare as well as her explosive first two. In contrast to her more vibrant and imaginative earlier work, Maya was kind of muted and lacked a lot of what made people love M.I.A., while doubling down on some of her more off-putting habits, like the conspiracy-theorizing that Google and the government were in cahoots to spy on us. (Which, as we all know now, was not far off at all.) She took a creative risk, and while it yielded mixed responses, its effect would've been a lot less impactful had it not taken forever for her to put out her fourth album.
It was clear that her label made M.I.A.'s music less of a priority when it came to her latest album, and it probably didn't help that she was being sued by the NFL for flipping off the camera during her Super Bowl halftime performance with Madonna in 2012. The album suffered from continual delays for over a year, until finally she threatened to leak the songs herself if they didn't give her a solid release date. And now we finally have it: Matangi.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange professed his admiration for M.I.A. via Skype to the full house in Terminal 5 before the show on Friday. "I have become a fan of M.I.A. because I think she is the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception," Assange said, calling from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he's currently living in exile. He spoke to the audience for 10 minutes about freedom of speech, the "military occupation of cyberspace," and privacy, topics M.I.A. has touched on throughout her decade-long career. In addition to speaking up about lesser-discussed global issues, M.I.A.'s courage extends to creating music that sounds boldly unlike anything else in pop music, for better or worse.
Matangi is just the kind of electric, flamboyant sound that music needs right now. The album's titled after M.I.A.'s own namesake, Matangi, the outcast Hindu goddess of music, the arts, and knowledge — the last of which plays a big part in the Matangi's themes. "[The goddess Matangi] was really interesting because she lived in the slums; she lived with the untouchables and represented them," M.I.A. recently told NPR. That's always been part of what M.I.A.'s been out to do: speak up for ideas and people she feels are repressed, even if she doesn't have the solutions. "Truth is like a rotten tooth, you gotta spit it out," she raps on "Bring The Noize." Later, on the glitchy, pummeling "Warriors," she compares her raps to "vitamins for your brain," and hints that, in another life, her words will become action: "This time I come as a singer / Next time I'll come as pain."
This isn't meant to be beautiful, lyrical poetry; much of it is clunky, sometimes cheesy even. On the title track "Matangi," she lists off the names of around 40 different countries in a sing-songy voice for what seems like a faux-radical call-to-action: "Gambia / Namibia / Bali / Mali / Chile / Malawi," and so on. But that's easy enough to overlook when taking in the bigger picture: the album feels revolutionary. And for the countries she's name-checking that are underrepresented in mainstream Western consciousness, it's a sign of inclusion.
M.I.A. joins up once again with longtime producing partner Switch (previously one-half of Major Lazer with Diplo, M.I.A.'s former collaborator and ex-boyfriend), while Danjo, Hit-Boy, and Dutch production duo The Partysquad all contribute beats. Like Arular and Kala, there's a bit of everything: bhangra influences, baile funk, dancehall, dub, reggae, electro, house. The album feels big, filled with earth-shaking, raucous bangers that ride through a variety of tempos and beats within each song. Of course, not everyone will be down for the ride.
"Only 1 U" is one of the album's best moments: a solid backbeat, offset by twinkling bells, digital glitch sounds, and a body roll-inducing hook, "There's only one you-you-you-you." And "Y.A.L.A." (a play off Drake's "YOLO," but in her case, "You Always Live Again) and "Bring The Noize" both let M.I.A. show off her rapid-fire flow, the beat keeping time with her as she runs for the distance.
"aTENTion" is a prime example of what makes M.I.A. special. Her vocals are robotic, and for much of it, she's just listing off things that rhyme with "tent" ("My exisTENT is miliTENT cause my conTENT bangs like it's poTENT"), in part thanks to Assange, who she says "came into the studio and took [her] computer and basically decrypted the whole of the internet, and downloaded every word in the whole of the language that contained the word 'tent' within it."
Still, while the rhyme scheme can feel a little elementary, set against the background of shouts, chants spelling out the title, and the chilly lounge music, it all works. Matangi brings back the energy and the cheekiness of the first two M.I.A. albums, when she was able to wink at herself. And more than anything, it's fun. (It's worth noting that M.I.A.'s label initially delayed the album because it was "too positive.") She takes us through a couple different beats and tempos, all backed by a strong South Asian bhangra influence. M.I.A. played with a lot of these elements in her first two albums, along with the dub, reggae, and electronic sounds that make up her trademark sound, and that make her music stand out. She weaves these influences together best on "Bad Girls," which came out almost two years ago and still hits as hard as it did then — a monster track with a mesmerizing hook, one that brought the house down during her Terminal 5 show. She can also slow it down, as she does on the especially charming and breezy "Come Walk With Me," and the slinkier "Exodus" and "Sexodus," featuring samples from The Weeknd.
There was a moment during the concert when M.I.A. paused to pass out packets of colored powder, throwing them into the audience, telling us we'd need it for "Galang," the song that first put her on the map in the U.S. When she performed it a bit later, the colored powder — traditionally used during Holi, the Hindu spring festival of colors — flew everywhere, casting a pink and purple hue across the crowd. And while Holi powder is now trendy in western culture, it doesn't feel gimmicky or cheap in the hands of M.I.A. Plenty of American pop stars have tried to capitalize on Eastern culture, exoticizing rituals, dress, and customs in a way that feels contrived. But when M.I.A. does it, with her global-citizen background, it comes across as more authentic. At a time where cultures are constantly colliding and many children are born to parents of different worlds (either geographically, religiously, or in another respect) — including myself as the first U.S.-born child to parents from Turkey and Pakistan — M.I.A. feels familiar and inspiring. She's able to merge the melodies we associate with our earliest memories of music with sounds that feel very current.
Some critics have called M.I.A. out, saying she's cashing in on a tired trend by using the samples and influences she does. But all evidence suggests that she talks about these subjects and uses these musical styles because it's who she is and it's where she comes from, not because she's trying to ride a trend. That she came into popularity at a time when it was fashionable in hip-hop and music to sample Bollywood hits or incorporate other cultural influences was to her advantage. But when a trend like that fades away, she's still a Tamil Sri Lankan, she's still a product of a war-torn country she feels passionate about, and she's still a person hoping to bring attention to causes and people that continue to go unheard. After all, compared with someone like Lady Gaga, whose albums have focused on fame and the nature of celebrity, M.I.A.'s work has always centered on what's close to her: her first two albums were named after her parents; her third, Maya, after the name she took growing up in London; and now Matangi, her given birth name — a look inward.
"Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down / You know America don't wanna hear your sound," she says on "Boom Skit." But for so many people in America, M.I.A.'s sound resonates greater than any Gaga song could. It feels like home.