Washington’s Echostage, a 6,000-capacity mega club known for hosting electronic dance music extravaganzas, seemed like an ill fit for a concert by Maya “M.I.A.” Arulpragasam: Rapping about post-colonial radicalism over creolized dance beats seems incongruous in the glow of a bottle-service behemoth. But on Sunday night, M.I.A. did what she always has done throughout her decade-long career, bending and breaking the rules of pop music to fit her revolutionary spirit.
Touring in support of last year’s “Matangi,” M.I.A. certainly looked and sounded like a pop star — albeit one of her own making — as she strafed the stage and bounced through the recesses of her catalogue. While she performed serpentine moves in sync with her backup dancers, she did so while finger-gunning and taking pot shots at the government. And, for all the seizure-inducing splendor of the LED light show, it seemed to evoke an international late-night seediness more than typical nightclub wonder.
Recontextualization aside, M.I.A. knows how to throw one amazing dance party. With the help of her DJ, Venus X, M.I.A. turned her hour-long set into a nonstop mix of globe-trotting dance-rap hybrids, all machine-gun club beats and war-zone sirens. Older songs felt fresh, mashed-up and rearranged, while songs that sound brittle on record were girded with enough bass to stop a tank in its tracks.
On the mike, M.I.A. held her own with equally rapid-fire rhymes; performing the first half of “Bring the Noize” a cappella, she succinctly delivered her mission statement: “Truth is like a rotten tooth, you gotta spit it out!” After years on the festival circuit, M.I.A. seemed to relish playing in the comparatively small Echostage. At several points, she was hoisted by security to the edge of crowd, sharing the mike with a legion of eager fans.
She closed the main part of her set with the anarchic “Born Free,” a punk headbanger that caused the dance party to grind to a halt. Calling out the National Security Agency and making vague claims about being thrown out of town, M.I.A. was as confrontational as her lyrics suggest; her cries of being “born free” were accompanied by blasts of fog-machine smoke before she defiantly dropped the mike and walked off stage.
For an encore, M.I.A. played the hits. The crowd joined her for a stick-up sing-along on her star-making “Paper Planes,” and a dozen women (and a couple of men) joined her onstage for the swaggering girl-power anthem “Bad Girls.” On the latter, she asked, “Who’s gonna stop me when I’m coming through?” No matter the venue, the answer was “no one.”
Kelly is a freelance writer.