Like any good rabble-rousing subversive, M.I.A. is more comfortable as an underdog. In 2009, the London-born agit-rapper of Sri Lankan descent - who played Upper Darby's Tower Theatre Friday in support of her fourth album,
- appeared to be the absolutely coolest person in the world.
That was when she waddled around, nine months pregnant, at the Grammy awards, upstaging Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and T.I. on "Swagga Like Us," a song built on a sample of "Paper Planes," her unlikely global hit whose hook is the sound of gunshots clashing with chiming cash registers.
Since then, it has been a bumpy ride. On Maya (2010), the pointed polemics of the artist born Mathangi Arulpragrasam were often overwhelmed by undifferentiated electronic noise. She next flipped off the camera while performing with Madonna in the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, for which the NFL is demanding $16.6 million in "restitution."
But she has bounced back with Matangi, which immerses itself in a collage of global street-beat sounds. What sounded paranoid on Maya now seems prescient.
Dressed in a saffron hoodie and sweatpants - half hip-hop, half Buddhist monk - M.I.A. opened with "The Message," from the album. The lyrics sound an alarm more chilling in the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations: "Headphones connect to the iPhone, iPhone connected to the Internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government."
M.I.A.'s set was an old-school hip-hop affair. Beats were by offstage and unseen DJ Venus X; onstage were one male and two female dancers. The show used the Tower's new general-admission configuration, with orchestra seats removed and concertgoers free to sit where they like. (Chairs return for reserved-seating shows.)
Though the room was less than half full, the setup worked in M.I.A.'s favor. At 38, she has a multiracial, much younger audience that sees her as a heroine of empowered self-expression. Pushed to the front of the stage to swagger with her, the crowd was the real star of the show. M.I.A. was smart enough to realize that. Though initially rocky, her set gained steam with bangers like "Amazon" from 2007's Arular and "Double Bubble Trouble."
After the Clash-sampling "Paper Planes," scores of female fans rapped along with the "live fast, die young" hook to "Bad Girls" and stayed on the stage for "Born Free." The celebration served as a reminder that although M.I.A. may already be past her commercial peak, she still brings together a ready-to-party community that looks like the future.