“Guns go off when I enter the building,” sings M.I.A. on “Y.A.L.A.,” a cut off her forthcoming record Matangi, and she certainly knows how to make an entrance. Last night at Manhattan’s Terminal 5, following an opening set by Harlem-bred DJ Venus X (who also provided the backing beats throughout M.I.A.’s performance), the rapper born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam took the stage in a gold shirt, platinum pants, and aviator shades to rotating spotlights and the deafening roar of helicopter blades. Despite some technical difficulties, the show was a thunderous kickoff for the Matangi tour, showcasing a mashup of new songs and the crowd-pleasing best of M.I.A.’s nearly ten-year career.
Illuminated by giant, blinking snowflake-shaped fixtures and LED-lit displays in Sinhala, the written language native to Sri Lanka, M.I.A. launched into a set as wildly unpredictable as herself. Alongside dancers decked out in clothing from her new Versace line, she mimed shooting at the crowd during Matangi‘s title track, veered into the aggressive horns from Kala‘s “XR2,” circled back around to her new album for the YOLO-parodying “Y.A.L.A.” (“If we only live once, why we keep doing the same shit?” she asks), and then backtracked to Arular for “Pull Up the People” and a rendition of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band-sampling “Sunshowers.” Venus X interspersed those tracks with familiar M.I.A. lines – the drop-top beats from “Galang” and “Bamboo Banga,” for example – prompting one audience member to note that all her songs sound the same.
When M.I.A. segued into the full version of “Bamboo Banga,” however, she started fiddling with her microphone, and shortly thereafter it cut out completely. For the next several minutes, she mouthed silently along with the formidable rhythms filling the space, seemingly unaware that we couldn’t hear her – or at least trying to put on a good show until the problem was fixed. Eventually her mic sputtered back to life and she pulled some audience members onto the stage before leading the rest in a sing-along of the anthemic “Ya, ya, heeeyyyy!” chorus of “Galang.” Then, in perhaps her most surprising move of the night, M.I.A. bent over, placed her hands on the monitors, and twerked.
The second half of her set got off to a slightly smoother start with “Boyz,” which saw M.I.A. remove her pants to reveal sequined shorts underneath; after a brief interlude, she returned wearing a red jersey with MATANGI on the back and a pink scarf. This time she seemed more comfortable with the material, which included a rewarding buildup to her smash hit “Paper Planes,” crisp and commanding in the hands of Venus X, and a stealthily bombastic “Bad Girls.” The closing song, the Weeknd’s “Lonely Star”-sampling slow jam “Sexodus,” functioned as a comedown of sorts. Bathed in blue lights, M.I.A. brought it home with the sound of helicopters once again, leaving her fans with another question before calling it a night: “You keep on telling me you want to have it all/ Tell me what for?”