It doesn't take much to impress the impressionable. When you take a glance at M.I.A.'s CV over the past six years, her musical credentials have never quite added up. Still, much kudos to her for sustaining a cult appeal built on her distinctive brand of rebel music and art-school airs. Rappers like T.I. and Kanye West love her, the Dazed & Confused set want to be her.
She records the sort of albums which are more contentious than Marmite, but she still manages to command respect, and can boast of Grammy and Oscar nominations, not to mention a well-connected husband, a baby boy and enviable artistic freedom. "I'm big-timer, it's the bamboo-banger!" screams the 35-year-old, as she rapidly swings around the kufiya headdress she was draped in only moments earlier to take to the stage. She's a rowdy performer too, and much of tonight's intoxicating show involves her rapping and dancing like a teenager half her age, alongside two dancers one suspects were plucked right out of an underground rave in Shoreditch.
Dressed in a kaleidoscopic outfit and backed by a female DJ and drummer, she brings tomboyish charm to the infectious and bass-heavy beats of "Illy Girl" and "World Town". The former song is a reminder of her political allegiances and she whimsically raps, "I know Billie Jean, I know Bruce Springsteen, I also know Palestine and Mujahideen", but it's much to the ignorance of this crowd, who seem more concerned with getting their party on. Even the multi-coloured press-conference style podium upstage seems to go to waste. She goes behind it between songs, but rather than launching into a tirade about technological conspiracies – which she does on "The Message" – or updating us on the plight of the Tamil Tigers, it looks more like she's checking her set list.
It's widely accepted that M.I.A.'s musical politicising can and should be taken lightly. She regularly takes her cue from the nonsensical ramblings of Missy Elliott, layers her lyrics with unbridled sexuality, and sets out simply to give people a good time. Party music is her forte. When she performs "Bucky Done Gun", "XR2" and "Galang", and starts to throw down her best dancehall moves, the crowd are with her. She responds by immersing herself in the front row, while a bodyguard stands cautiously behind, and extends her gratitude further by inviting a number of punters on stage for the body-rocking "Boyz", from 2007's Kala. The mood only dips slightly when she decides to sing "It Takes a Muscle" from her most recent album, /\/\/\Y/\ – she's a much better rapper – but this is quickly rectified by a swooping rendition of "Story to Be Told" and an ear-splitting performance of "Born Free", rounded up with a swift middle finger in the air. "I throw this in your face when I see you, 'cause I got something to say!" she quips.
Much to the dismay of her followers, who would have happily stayed until the early morning, the show wraps up with the Oscar-nominated "Paper Planes", better known as the Slumdog Millionaire theme. Considering she's recorded three albums, it's a pity that she only performs for just over an hour. Then again, there's not much Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam can't get away with.