Like any good rabble-rousing subversive, M.I.A. is more comfortable as an underdog.
Back in 2009, the London-born agit-rapper of Sri Lankan descent - who played the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby on Friday in a show that kicked off the second leg of an American tour in support of her fourth album Matangi - appeared to be the absolutely coolest person in the world.
That was when she famously waddled around in a polka dot maternity dress while 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's been a bit of a bumpy ride. Maya, the 2010 album that followed, saw the pointed polemics of the artist born Mathangi Arulpragrasam often overwhelmed by a wall of undifferentiated electronic noise.
That album was greeted by a takedown in the New York Times Magazine, and M.I.A. didn't do herself any favors by flipping off the camera while performing with Madonna during the 2012 Super Bowl half time show, an infraction for which the apparently strapped-for-cash NFL is now demanding $16.6 million in "restitution" from the artist.
But M.I.A. bounced back with Matangi, which once again immerses itself in a collage of global street beat sounds and takes inspiration from the Hindu goddess of music and learning. And much as what sounded paranoid on Maya now comes off as prescient.
Dressed in a saffron hoodie and matching sweatpants outfit that was half hip-hop, half Buddhist monk, M.I.A. opened with that album's "The Message. " The nursery rhyme lyrics sound an alarm more chilling in the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of the surveillance state: "Headphones connect to the iPhone, iPhone connected to the Internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government."
At the Tower, M.I.A.'s set was very much an old school hip-hop affair. Beats were provided by DJ Venus X, who was offstage and unseen. The rapper was joined onstage by two black female dancers and one red headed white boy - his coloring significant because it matched that of the "ginger" political prisoners who are persecuted in the anti-racism video for "Born Free."
Friday was one of the first shows utilizing the Tower's new general admission configuration, with orchestra seats removed to create a dance party vibe and concertgoers free to sit where they like. (Chairs will be put back in place for more sedentary, reserved seating shows.)
Though the room was less was less than half full, and balcony not even open, the set-up worked in M.I.A.'s favor. She has an adoring, stylish, multi-racial audience much younger than herself - she's 38 - that rightly sees her as a heroine of empowered, politicized self-expression. Pushed to the front of the stage to swagger along with her, the crowd was the real star of the show.
M.I.A. was smart enough to realize that. Though her set was rocky at the start, marred by a muddy mix, it gathered steam with bangers like "Amazon" from 2007's Arular (still her best album) and "Double Bubble Trouble" from Matangi.
The Clash-sampling "Paper Planes" was followed by scores of female fans (and a few overzealous guys) joining her to rap along with the "live fast, die young" hook to "Bad Girls." That oversized crew stayed on stage for "Born Free." And though goofy attempts to snap selfies while moving in rhythm made it more comical than cathartic, it was a satisfying celebration that 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 face of the future.
"Bad Girls" is below.