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Live review: M.I.A. at the Mayan

October 15, 2010 |  4:05 pm

British rapper brings charisma and forceful physical presence to the Mayan in L.A.

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M.I.A. knows no boundaries. Thursday night at the Mayan in downtown L.A., the rapper and singer repeatedly leaned out over the sold-out crowd, thrusting her lithe body on top of hands as a sort of dare with a plea: Brace me, don't touch me. This proscenium breach wasn't the athletic act of stage-diving; this was more a charismatic gesture of insistence, both supplicating and provocative.

“All I wanted was to tell my story,” she chanted over and over, rapping a song from her latest, third album, Maya. Sampled drum cracks, bass booms and electronic explosions rattled the room, as if this faux-temple nightclub were a bunker under attack.

During the last year, the story that the artist born Maya Arulpragasam wants to tell has tended to get lost in the noise of various career controversies, sensationalist magazine stories, weak album sales and sheer bad luck (M.I.A. was supposed to headline L.A.'s Hard Festival this summer, but it was canceled; this was her first show in L.A. since then).

MIA_MAYAN_2_3_Thursday the English musician of Sri Lankan descent had a more than receptive audience for her shock-and-awe dance anthems about oppression and liberation. And although she seemed to have a little trouble getting over herself — “It ain't (expletive) easy,” she said toward the show's end, perhaps trying to explain the awkward pacing of the barely one-hour concert — she also seemed relieved to have rediscovered her people in the city that has become her occasional home.

M.I.A. is clearly an original. She uses her ethnic outsider position to create images and music that bust boundaries placed around gender, race and genre. To a roar of club beats and whistling fans, she stepped on stage wrapped in a voluminous hoodie that hid her body, then posed in the defiant mode of a gangsta rapper, mirrored sunglasses reflecting back at the audience.

She eventually dropped the jacket to reveal the pink, Indian PJ-looking pantsuit beneath. A fierce beauty with long, jet hair and doe eyes, she favors brightly colored eye and lip makeup as a sort of hyper-feminine statement. She danced up a storm, undulating like an ecstatic belly dancer, but she was never docile or objectified. Rather, she mimed firing shots in the air on her hit “Paper Planes.” M.I.A. puts the militant back in feminism.

Not only does she present a strong image that the female-heavy audience clearly admires; she surrounds herself with women, including Baltimore rapper Rye Rye, a DJ-programmer, and three dancers who spent the entire show clothed in burkas. (There were also two male dancers.) M.I.A. likes to mix cultural symbols and push buttons. Equally at home in London, Sri Lanka, Brooklyn and L.A., her songs intertwine hip-hop, techno, dancehall, bass, bhangra and punk. This is global club music.

M.I.A. performed songs from all of her albums, including “Bucky Done Gun,” “Galang” and “Boyz.” For her last song, the rapid-fire ghetto-punk anthem “Born Free,” she filled the stage with fans, literally pulling up the people — as she rapped on her debut album — from the floor.

Rye Rye, who's signed to M.I.A.'s label, N.E.E.T., opened the show with a frenetic set of pounding bass music. She looked as if she were wearing a costume of Goldie Hawn's from “Laugh-In,” superimposed literally over black: A blond wig covered ebony locks, and a black leotard lay under a Day-Glo fringed mini dress. Detractors have accused M.I.A. of being disingenuous in her revolutionary posturing, so it was heartening to see her support this endangered species — female rappers. From her adoring fans to Rye Rye, M.I.A. really does pull up people, particularly strong women of color — like herself.

-- Evelyn McDonnell

Photos: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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