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Split Decision: M.I.A.'s Hard Festival Trial

The radical pop provocateur scores as talent scout, misses as headliner

The Hard Festival is designed to bridge concert culture and rave culture. Or showcase dance-derived acts with a knack for stagecraft. Or make big bucks inventing a market niche. Somewhere in there. But the reason I elected to spend eight hours in humid 96-degree heat on an uninhabited square mile in New York Harbor on July 24 was to see how M.I.A. was doing. With the July 17 Hard Festival in Los Angeles canceled after a 15-year-old died at a real L.A. rave, July 24's Governors Island edition would constitute the official live rollout of M.I.A.'s third album, /\/\/\Y/\, hereafter designated Maya.

The adamantly un-pop follow-up to her long-breaking 2007 tour de force Kala, Maya is one of the rare albums that actually warrants the weasel word "controversial." Her cred damaged unduly by a transparently ill-intentioned profile in The New York Times Magazine, the volatile M.I.A. was in no mood for the mixed reception her defiantly uninviting if ultimately winning album was sure to get. I was rooting for her to show the doubters what she was made of, and in one way I got what I came for. But it wasn't the way I would have preferred.

If you'll pardon another weasel word, the July 24 Hard Festival was "curated" by M.I.A.'s boutique label, Neet Recordings, and she did a bang-bang job. Since Brooklyn alt-rapper Theophilus London and South London dubsteppers Skream + Benga will show up again at the realigned Aug. 7 L. A. Hard Festival, let's assume they were the presenter's choices. That way she's not responsible for the 8 p.m. slot, when London's John-Legend-without-the-voice and the dance act's bludgeon-beats combined to create the two-stage festival's only musical dead zone. London was a double comedown because he came specially recommended by the homeboys who ran away with the second stage's 6 o'clock slot--Ninjasonik, signed to Green Owl, owned and operated by M.I.A. babydaddy Ben Bronfman.

Ninjasonik are eyebrow-cocking wise guy Rev McFly, a goateed hipster dressed in black with a raccoon tail suspended from his belt, and hyperactive big boi Telli Gramz, his purple-and-black plaid Bermudas hanging halfway down his black-and-gray checkerboard boxers. Their motto, the one I can quote: "Drink, smoke, and never grow up." I'd call them the African-American Beastie Boys if they didn't also evoke the Ramones somehow--maybe in how carefully rehearsed their mayhem clearly becomes when they're trading phrases. Anarchically catchy and hilarious for 40 minutes straight, they closed with their new single "Art School Girl": "Her sketches are so rad/Her bills get paid by Dad."

Onto the main stage at 7 sharp came a longtime M.I.A. fave, Baltimore rapper Rye Rye. After detonating her tiny coiled-spring body from beneath her helmet of straightened hair, she asked for cheers from first hardcore and then art school girls and got a hardcore response from an amped, friendly mixed-race crowd that was nonetheless about three-quarters white. "We got something for both," Rye Rye went on, summing up the Hard Festival ethos as none other than Ninjasonik came on to collab on the song that had just climaxed their own set. She was fun, but like many rappers, had trouble stretching her one trick over a full set as the crowd, substantial but no sellout throng, drifted toward the food tents--and note for what it's worth that there were multiple vegan options but no Greenpeace or Rock the Vote distractions at this event. M.I.A. has plenty of political concerns, often incoherent ones, but mixing things up is her core practice. My favorite Hard DJ was dubby-squelchy Borgore, who also sang "Cry Me a River" in what I took for a German accent. He's Israeli.

Although Borgore and L.A.'s 12th Planet kept spinning from the second stage, as of 9:30 p.m. Hard was pretty much pure concert as the Sleigh Bells-Die Antwoord-M.I.A. trifecta climaxed the long steamy day. Neet signees Sleigh Bells are this year's hot NYC band: Derek Miller laying noise guitar on hyper-compressed thudbeats as Alexis Krauss pretties things up with chants that are hard to make out on record and were incomprehensible coming from four Marshall stacks as she writhed about in a dry-ice fog, which didn't stop her faithful from mouthing along. Having walked out on them in May before I heard the album, this time I did some humming along of my own. They were off in the 40 minutes their concept deserved, and were soon blown away by the bigger concept of South African "zef rap-rave" trio Die Antwoord, billed next to the top even though they're known entirely via viral video--"Enter the Ninja" captures the idea. [You can view Die Antwoord's official video for "Enter the Ninja" here. Viewers are advised that this is mature content that may be deemed unsuitable for some audiences.]

Led by 45-year-old Watkin Tudor Jones playing a prison-tattooed Afrikaner "zef" named Ninja and bleached-blond little "Yo-Landi Vi$$er" snapping off rhythmic coos and obscenities in the voice of an 8-year-old girl, Die Antwoord mean to demolish all comforting truisms about the world's most twisted mixed-race society. Their visuals even stronger than their Euro-rap beats, they're cheap, offensive, frightening, arresting, intelligent, and ready to rake in the rands. In the only encore of the day, they put a philosophical gloss on Ninjasonik's seven-day weekend: "Superego I am your enemy." It's said that M.I.A. loves them and vice versa. But their act is so tight you'd clearly need plenty of regular ego to follow them. And for M.I.A. right now, that appears to be a problem. Her festival was terrific. Her set was terrible.

The underlying problem, I'm guessing, is that she doesn't trust her spare new songs. Why else would she drown them in volume pushed to 12 and four layers of reverb? "Steppin Up," "Illygirl," and "Lovealot" are tunes I've learned to love, but I barely recognized them, and I've played Maya dozens of times. Far from courting doubters, she was telling them to buzz off. Older material like "Bucky Done Gun" and "Bamboo Banga" held up better, and on "20 Dollar" the effects quieted down for some reason, but with the new "Teqkilla" the music disintegrated. Room-service bar carts were rolled out as M.I.A. insisted the amps be jacked up even higher as she intoned "I need to feel the beat" for, what--five minutes? Whereupon she announced, "I don't really have a set list," and, in the stupidest trick in the lost rock star's playbook, solicited requests. She was performing "Boys" as the rain began, and I had found shelter in the Red Bull tent by the time the heavens opened and the already diminishing crowd fled en masse. If there is a God, Maya, he is a God of wrath.

On the ferry back, two Princeton students who'd stationed themselves up front told me that everyone around them welcomed the rain because it gave them an excuse to leave. M.I.A. was said to be singing the new "Born Free" a cappella after the sound shut down. I'm still rooting for her, but I believe curating is for dilettantes. Sing your stuff, gal.

MSN Music, July 27, 2010