Review: M.I.A. shakes the faithful (and the walls) at Belasco Theater

M.I.A. performs Nov. 11 at the Belasco Theater.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

M.I.A. had cautioned them, but her fans hadn’t listened.

“iPhone connected to the Internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government,” went a claim in her song “The Message.” Released in 2010, the track seemingly foreshadowed Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about digital surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Yet seconds after the singer-rapper came onstage Monday night to the sound of chopping helicopter blades, her audience at the Belasco Theater had transformed into a sea of glowing smartphones, each capturing a stream of data to be beamed into cyberspace -- and possibly intercepted by Big Brother.

Behind dark sunglasses, M.I.A. looked pleased that her warning had gone unheeded.


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The last several years have been transitional ones for this Sri Lankan-raised pop provocateur, who after making her name with globe-tripping songs examining struggle on society’s margins, came thrillingly close to mainstream stardom when her song “Paper Planes” -- about using fake visas to sneak by border police -- crashed the top 5 in 2008. At the Grammy Awards the next year, M.I.A. performed with Jay Z, Kanye West, T.I. and Lil Wayne -- mere days before giving birth, no less.

In 2010, though, she put out “Maya,” a polarizing (if underrated) album that turned off some longtime listeners. Then she raised the ire of many Americans when she flipped off the camera during Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, an offense for which she’s being sued by the National Football League.

The result this month was the relatively low-impact release of M.I.A.’s fourth studio disc, “Matangi,” which hasn’t caused the stir her older work did.

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So you could imagine that the scramble to document her presence at the Belasco, where she was playing the first of two sold-out concerts, felt like a return to relevance for M.I.A., proof that she still matters, at least to a devoted core.

An appealingly frantic spray of beats and chants, Monday’s show seemed designed for the faithful rather than for the casual listener who might’ve downloaded “Paper Planes.” M.I.A. did her big hit, of course, and with enough energy to inspire a woman in the crowd to climb a stack of speakers and dance until a security guard forced her down.

But accompanied by a DJ, drummer and backup vocalist, she skipped much of her other radio-friendly material in favor of furious, bass-heavy renditions of tunes such as “World Town,” with its call of “Hands up, guns out,” and “Lovalot,” in which she mentions a “Taliban trucker eating boiled-up yucca” and promises, “I fight the ones that fight me.”

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As aggressive as the music was, it upheld the intricate global connections that run through M.I.A.’s records, as in “Bird Flu,” where she accented the song’s sampled South Asian percussion with Middle Eastern ululations, and the new album’s “Come Walk With Me,” which layered sweet doo-wop vocals over a hammering dancehall groove.

And though she spoke little during the gig, M.I.A. wasn’t renouncing her natural star power. During “Bucky Done Gun,” she twirled the end of a chunky gold belt she had around her waist, momentarily turning the stage into a runway; later, she used her necklace to act out a lyric from “Bad Girls” about chains hitting her chest.

That allure helped draw a group of audience members onstage to dance around M.I.A. during a version of “Boyz” that seemed to shake the walls of the Belasco. But it also inspired another opportunity for electronic intrusion when one fan put her arm around the artist mid-song and snapped a photo surely destined for Facebook or Instagram.

Caught between the demands of performance and promotion, M.I.A. posed quickly, then got on with the show.


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Twitter: @mikaelwood