Sri Lanka and Harlem. Trap Lord meets Matangi. Last Friday night, eclectic, world music-infused amalgamation of sound and word paired up with straight-up NYC hip-hop. Probably no better place for this get together to occur than one of the most diverse spots in the world—Queens. And so the M.I.A. and A$AP Ferg double bill on a rainy, humid night at the Knockdown Center was a creative and not illogical pairing.
First the venue. It’s a former warehouse from 1900 with soaring 40 foot ceilings, providing the perfect laboratory for this experiment. It leant the aura of an underground event while providing all of the trappings of civilization—a gentrified underground if you will. (Though the temperature and humidity were decidedly ungentrified!)
So, what happens when you mix two such different and volatile reactants? Each artist is more than capable of holding their own. As a rising star, A$AP Ferg has developed the rapping chops to hold his own amongst the best. He actually got his start from the fashion side of the hip-hop world, a definite connection with M.I.A. who has a similar background in the rag trade. A$AP Ferg has won critical accolades as perhaps the most accomplished of the A$AP Mob. He can write, he can sing and he has the performing skills to make it all real for an audience. Heavy lyrics about real world problems. He did not disappoint. He is able to push boundaries while staying close enough to his audience’s expectations to bring them along rather than leaving them behind. He lead, they followed enthusiastically.
Joined on stage by the newest member of the Mob, Marty Baller, he got the crowd into over-drive. He jumped into the crowd several times, and many got doused with some not unwelcome cooing water. Baller was even more adventuresome with his crowd interactions, adding a little grinding with the front few rows. The Trap Lord has a deep, rich sound, exploring the darker side of the rap universe while never forgetting to be entertaining at the same time. Big, real-world themes are packaged in a listenable way. And while the Knockdown Center did not get approval to sell liquor, A$AP Ferg made sure that at least the front few rows of the audience got some champagne.
When first jumping on the scene, M.I.A. seemed an unusual entrant into the hip-hop universe. And yet her unique brand of energetic and eccentric music has found its place in both the public and the critics’ hearts. Her political-themed rap in many ways brings us back to an older style of hip-hop where politics and inequality were the prominent themes. Her inspirations have always been bigger and more globally inspired than the more localized topics of American hip-hop. Big world view, big problems. M.I.A. is certainly one of the more interesting and self-aware artistic personas in music. But how does her art-school poli-sci major approach translate to performance? Especially since at times, some of her lyrics seem to imply depth without feeling genuine. Artifice rather than art.
This tour is in support of her newest album, Matangi. That name comes from a Hindu goddess. And M.I.A. got to preaching her anti-YOLO/pro-Y.A.L.A. (You Always Live Again) gospel, emphasizing continuity and rebirth. An over-the-top light show and non-stop beats made the evening an ADHD dream. Excess has never been an issue with M.I.A. Spectacle is her stock and trade. No worries about the entertainment quality of whatever messages she might want to convey.
She performed a well thought out mix of the old and new, favoring hits over some of her more obscure songs. The politics seemed to be more on the back burner. In the mash-up of politics and beats, the beats won. This was a dance party, not a position paper. The driving rhythm and the visuals made the words much less the star. The aggressiveness was there, but in the service of a good time. The crowd became a dancing and sweaty mess.
Making her entrance solo in an over-sized bright orange raincoat helped keep the attention on the star. She began by taking an image of the audience on her laptop. Backing dancers soon joined in which added more human vitality to the electrified set. M.I.A. has had a reputation of being somewhat static amongst the chaos, posturing more than actually dancing in previous shows. That was not the case on this night. She never stopped moving, climbing and even twerking. The occasional towel breaks to dry off were a testament to her on-stage vitality. She had to peel off layers periodically. This being the first truly humid, summer’s near night of this season, that raincoat had to go, revealing the gold lamé shirt that was her final look of the performance. She brought audience members up to the stage and several times she jumped into the crowd. The audience was always part of the show, and the energy level never flagged. Whatever unique sonic mix M.I.A. has created, it works.
A bit disappointingly, each artist played their own set, and neither tried the surprise guest thing, so no chance to see a true mix of their styles. Otherewise, an amazing show, and nobody left sweat-free.
Photos and words by Robert Altman