Thick clouds of smoke floated high into the rafters of an old airplane hangar as M.I.A. emerged on stage, welcomed by the hoarse screams of the students who had impatiently waited for the moment all night. The exhilarating performance that followed was well worth the anticipation.
Baltimore rapper Rye Rye opened the Oct. 3 show at Cornell University's Barton Hall. Recently, Rye Rye has been best known as M.I.A.'s protégé, but the release of her debut album Go! Pop! Bang! in January could establish the 17-year-old as an artist in her own right. With the catchy dancehall beats of her first single "Bang" and the stuttered rhythms of "Shake it to the Ground," Rye Rye certainly proved she could keep a crowd entertained. The shirtless dancer on stage with her might have helped, too.
As the lights came on in between acts, the restless crowd began to murmur excitedly about the main attraction of the evening, that exotic and elusive star named Maya.
M.I.A., born in London to parents of Sri Lankan descent, is renowned for her unique style of music, a patchwork quilt of influences from every corner of the world stitched together with hip-hop beats and electronic effects. Her third studio album, Maya, was released in July.
After what felt like hours had passed, somebody somewhere started clapping, and the applause spread through the crowd along with rumors that, in an ironic turn of events, the singer might well live up to her namesake. Soon enough, booming techno beats and puffs of smoke from up on stage dispelled any such fears and M.I.A. strutted out with her arms held high to greet the cheering crowd.
Wearing yellow Ray Bans and striped fuzzy socks, she swaggered across the stage like a true rock star, opening with the song "The Message" from her newest album. The song's simple and repetitive lyrics sung over a throbbing bass track are typical of M.I.A.'s signature style.
"Where my boys at tonight, raise your hands up," she called lazily through the microphone after playing a few more songs. The unmistakable opening to "Boyz" came pounding through the speakers followed by two more tracks from her sophomore album Kala, "Bamboo Banga" and "XR2." The energy of the audience was unfaltering even to the very end when M.I.A. crawled up on top of the speakers for the howling chorus of "Born Free."
Even as the barriers separating the star from her fans came down and the front row of students clambered onto the stage during a delirious performance of popular club jam "Teqkilla," M.I.A. remained unfazed. "Help each other up, watch it now, careful," she cautioned before concluding the performance with a predictable but in no way disappointing rendition of her hit "Paper Planes."
For an international pop star like M.I.A., it was a night like any other. But for the rest of us walking out of the concert hall that night, it had been anything but ordinary.