One of the biggest selling British singles in recent years comes from a somewhat unlikely pop icon. The song in question isn't exactly a commercial release, indeed it's possible that no-one expected it to be a hit. Its lyrical content alone (drug references and mentions of genocide) marked it out as an easy target for censorship - there is no way a major label would have released such a song. Yet despite this the song staked its claim as an important part of pop-culture. Smart, insightful lyrics and a pervading menace surely made the song appeal to a disenfranchised youth, whilst the catchy chorus made it a sure-fire club hit. But the key element, the thing everyone instantly remembers, is the one thing that reviewers stated would keep the track as far from FM radio as possible - that almighty gun-shot beat.

Four short, sharp gun blasts ring out in the chorus and tell the listener that this track is as anti-establishment as it is possible to be. It's fitting that this moment was to be the one that brought M.I.A. to mainstream attention. It was edgy and cool, and more importantly it forced radio to start playing the song. Admittedly they attempted to remove the gun shots, and whilst they may not have directly broadcast them, everyone who heard the song filled in the blanks themselves.

'Paper Planes' is easily M.I.A's most significant song. Its mark on popular culture is undeniable. It's been sampled by several hip-hop artists - notably West on 'Swagga Like Us' - covered by the likes of Rihanna and Holy Fuck, and used in films as diverse as Pineapple Express, Slumdog Millionare and Capitalism: A Love Story. It also serves as the best entry point to M.I.A.'s work as an artist exhibiting her ability to create exciting, unique music, her use of mash-up and her political focus.

M.I.A.'s debut album Arular was released in 2005. Nominated for the Mercury Music prize, its garish artwork - a DIY style scrapbook of images and icons depicting flags, bombs, assault rifles and tanks - stood out against the other nominees, which included Bloc Party, Coldplay and KT Tunstall. This no doubt helped to prepare the listener for the music they were about to hear. Almost ten years have passed since Arular was released but it's easy to remember just how shocking that first listen was.

Arular blended hip-hop, punk and electro-clash to create a record that truly sounded like nothing that had come before. The influence of other artists could be felt throughout, but at no point point did it feel like M.I.A. was trying to replicate the past. From the outset it was clear to anyone who was willing to listen that this was an album that had something new and important to say; musically and lyrically. Mathangi has stated that she wanted to create political songs but that audiences found it difficult to dance to such records - certainly the influences she listed at the time which had a political focus (The Clash, Public Enemy) didn't exactly make music for clubs. Arular changed that as M.I.A. embraced a less antagonistic sound and used a Roland MC-505 to write and lay down backing for many of the songs on the album.

The politics of Arular also came from a far more personal place and allowed Maya to reach the level of lyricism and insight of the artists who influenced her. Many critics at the time noticed the images of tigers throughout the album artwork and, given Maya's Sri Lankan heritage, drew the connection to the Tamil Tigers and the independence movement. The album's title itself is the codename of M.I.A.'s father Arul Pragasam a Tamil activist and former revolutionary.

M.I.A. was born Mathangi Arulpragasam in 1975 in Hounslow to Arul, at that point an engineer and writer, and Kala, a seamstress. By the end of the year her family had relocated to Jaffna, Sri Lanka where her father became more deeply involved in activism and founded the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). The Sri Lankan civil war and EROS affiliation with the Tamil Tigers forced M.I.A.'s family into hiding and severed almost all chance of contact between Mathangi and her father; on the rare occasion they did meet he was introduced as her uncle. M.I.A. later stated that part of her intention for naming her debut album after her father was to force him into contacting her. It certainly worked as Arul contacted his daughter asking her to take his name off of her record.

For eleven years M.I.A. and her family lived through a civil war. Whilst the war itself was sparked by the burning of Jaffna's library in 1981 by state sponsored police and military personnel, the initial tensions had their roots in British Colonial rule, in which power of the country was dangled between the Sinhalese and Tamil. Whilst initial moves to take back power from the British seemed peaceful, several laws passed in the run-up to and aftermath of independence that led to the Indian Tamil population being refused citizenship and deported in huge numbers, as well as (by making Sinhalese the official language) seeming to discourage Sri Lankan Tamils from finding employment.

This, coupled with the burning of the library - one of the world's largest with extensive historical and cultural records relating to the history of Sri Lanka - and attacks on non-English schools, showed an attempt to attack and destroy education which didn't fit the state-narrative. M.I.A. appears to reference this in Arular, which opens with a skit in which people are taught to say banana, before cutting into 'Pull Up The People'.

M.I.A., and her family (minus Arul who stayed in Sri Lanka) returned to the UK shortly before her eleventh birthday. They moved into an estate in South West London, M.I.A. entered her final year of primary school in the Autumn of that year (it's at this point she started using the name Maya, as it was apparently easier for her classmates to say), whilst Kala continued to work as a seamstress, bring in just enough money to support the family on her own. If the poverty and racism Mathangi and her family endured wasn't enough, she also had teachers telling her that because she was a child in a single parent family, she would never amount to anything more than stacking shelves. Fortunately Mathangi was able to show focus, determination and such strong faith in her beliefs that she managed to escape the estate and eventually become a global icon. Unfortunately the same qualities would see her labelled as controversial and outspoken, as well as result in the Sri Lankan government criticising her support of the Tamil Tigers, who they viewed as terrorists, in 2009.

The turning point for Mathangi was her acceptance and scholarship to Central St Martins, though even that required her to show "chutzpah" in order to get in. There she studied fine art, film and video, and began to lay the groundwork for output as M.I.A.

She was initially interested in social realism in film, citing other fields - fashion in particular - as lacking awareness of society and being more heavily skewed towards theory and conceptualisation. Outside of her studies she befriended other students in wildly different disciplines, most notably Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who would later give Mathangi the Roland MC-505 used to write Arular.

M.I.A.'s collaborative spirit that first revealed itself at Central St Martins would become an integral part of her 2007 release Kala. Often touted as the strongest album in her career, it was the record that truly established M.I.A. as an artist for a generation who had grown up with globalisation and the internet. Kala opened with a sample of fast and furious Bollywood drumming that stops suddenly before Maya appears singing the lyrics to Jonathan Richman's 'Roadrunner'. The beat underneath is a muffled four to the floor thump that builds as M.I.A. starts to rap. The chorus features a vocal sample taken from the same Bollywood track as the intro. Along with lyrics such as "M.I.A coming back with power, power," it was clear this was a bold entrance that shows her playing fast and loose with genre and music history - everything was ripe for sampling, covering, stealing, tweaking and re-purposing

The collaborators and influences on Kala seemed to pull in almost every genre imaginable and represent every continent. There were guest vocals from Nigerian-born rapper Afrikan Boy, and Aboriginal hip-hop group The Wilcannia mob, production by the likes of Diplo, Switch and Blaqstar, and the use of urumee drums. These drums were notable for they feature heavily in Gaana, a Tamil music style. Kala also featured wider use of sampling. Aside from the afore-mentioned samples in 'Bamboo Banga', there was the use of 'Straight to Hell' by the Clash ('Paper Planes'), 'Where Is My Mind' by The Pixies, 'Blue Monday' by New Order (both in '20 Dollar') and a cover of the Bollywood song 'Jimmy Jimmy Aja' ('Jimmy').

With Kala being named after M.I.A.'s mother it should come as little surprise that the record dealt with themes of adversity and poverty. 'Hussel' for example focused on immigration, in particular the life of a refugee - "we do it cheap, hide our money in a heap, send it home and make 'em study." 'Paper Planes' meanwhile dealt with perceptions towards immigration and gang violence, whilst the references to visa's may also have been a sly nod to M.I.A.'s own trouble with getting a work visa for the US due to her family's connection to the civil way in Sri Lanka.

By the time December 2007 clocked in, and the inevitable end of year lists circulated, Kala was ranked highly by many critics and the success of the album turned M.I.A. into pop music's newest star. The following year would see the release of 'Paper Planes' as a single, which would only further enhance her popularity. Unfortunately this popularity also brought along a backlash and fall from grace, that in many ways, especially given the feisty character that convinced Central St Martin's to accept her, was inevitable.

Looking back on M.I.A.'s career, it's easy to see the early sign posts for 'trouble ahead'. Her lyrical content, often dealing with immigration, poverty, revolution and gender stereotypes, still jars in a music industry that is deeply conservative and interested in protecting the old structures. You only have to look at recent articles by the likes of Grimes (here) and Lauren Mayberry (here) of Chvrches to see how prevalent sexism is online and within the industry. This coupled with a still festering racism that tries to belittle and trivialise issues raised by non-white artists - see for example Kimmel's reduction of Kanye West's radio 1 interview to being like the ramblings of a child, or in fact the number of times Kanye speaking out about anything is labelled as "ranting".

In 2007, under the suitably antagonistically fuelled title 'M.I.A Confronts the Haters', Pitchfork ran an interview with M.I.A in which she made explicit reference to the sexism and racism she experienced within the music industry and the media. Particular focus was given to comparisons of media portrayals of herself and collaborator (and at one point partner) Diplo. Paul Thompson was the interviewer and before he was even able to finish his first question M.I.A. interjected to say "Diplo didn't make it." She was taking issue with the way in which Pitchfork, and many other publications in their reviews and discussions on Arular and Kala, seemed to suggest that Diplo was the creative mind behind M.I.A. - she admits that he was a collaborator, though during the interview she states that Diplo provided a single loop for 'Bucky Done Gun', but the focus of her frustration is the way in which journalists seemed unwilling to accept that a woman could be creatively independent.

"I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can't have any ideas on my own because I'm a female or that people from undeveloped countries can't have ideas of their own unless it's backed up by someone who's blond-haired and blue-eyed."

In the same interview she also called out the lack of coverage her own activism and social politics was receiving in comparison to "some blond-haired, blue-eyed person." Her politics, and many of the themes she's dealt with (particularly on the first two records) come from a very personal place and direct experience. In addition to this her collaborations have always tried to embrace musicians who wouldn't normally have received attention, groups like Wilcannia Mob, Afrikan Boy and Blaqstarr.

But it was to be 2010, and an interview with Lynn Hirschberg for the New York Time Magazine, that would suddenly shift public perception of M.I.A....

The article accused M.I.A of political naivety, hypocrisy and in many ways had all the hallmarks of a character assassination. The interview is remembered for the way in which truffle fries (which M.I.A. claimed Hirschberg ordered) are used to underline the fundamental hypocrisy of M.I.A.'s work and lifestyle. There are many ways in which it is possible, or even worthwhile criticising M.I.A., for example her sometimes shifting story about her father's role in the Sri Lankan civil war, but what Hirschberg did is create the image of M.I.A., the new capitalist sweetheart and in doing so managed to invalidate many of the things she spoke or rapped about in the minds of the public.

Suddenly the successes that had come to M.I.A. from hard work, talent and self belief were ignored because she was rich and resided in Beverly Hills. Never mind the fact that she grew up in the middle of a brutal and bloody war, or dealt with poverty and racism after moving to the UK, or even that she donates large sums from special performances to social causes building schools and educating youngsters. No, in one article Lynn Hirschberg turned Mathangi Arulpragasm in to one of the privileged, one of the 1%.

M.I.A.'s struggles with the trappings of fame and the industry directly influenced the lead single from 2010 record MAYA (stylised as /\/\/\Y/\). 'XXXO', a pun on excess sex oh, deals with the increased sexuality required of female musicians. Lines like "and all I know is that you leave me wanting more, I don't let it show, but I think you know" mock the traditional pop theme of female desire and yearning for sex (compare to Robin Thicke's assertion "I know you want it" on 'Blurred Lines'). M.I.A. also referenced her frustration with Diplo's perceived influence and male superiority with the lyric "We can find ways, to expand what you know, I can be that actress, you be Tarantino."

MAYA was labelled as a paranoid, schizophrenic record (including by M.I.A. herself) and wasn't the critical success of her first two albums. The first two tracks were like no other M.I.A. song we'd heard before. 'The Message' had a stuttering drumbeat and a robotic voice that repeated the mantra "connected to the google, connected to the goverment." In a pre-Snowdon world, she was labelled a conspiracy theorist and mocked, yet three years later MAYA's opening salvo is a strangely prescient warning shot. 'Steppin Up' meanwhile used the sound of machinery (particularly drills and chainsaws) to create on of the most violent sounding pop-songs of recent memory.

Whilst visuals have always been another important part of M.I.A.'s output (she designs all of the covers and provides direction for her own music videos) this element was also starting to overshadow the music. 'Born Free' is a case in point. Whilst the song itself focuses on the very real struggle for independence and freedom from totalitarianism faced by millions of people every day, reaction focused on less of the message and more on the clips depictions of violence towards ginger-haired people. The Romain Gavras directed clip was certainly meant to be shocking, and the use of a group of people usually on the receiving end of playground bullying subverts the practice, whilst also ensuring that the video doesn't directly depict any real conflict.

In a few short years M.I.A. had gone from a critical success with a fascinating past and insightful, political edge to a media controlled caricature of herself. If the reviews of MAYA weren't bad enough, she was now the attention of gossip rags due to the collapse of her marriage and a bitter custody battle over her son, whilst some of her on stage antics were causing major problems - the NFL is suing her over that half-time show performance. But Mathangi Arulpragasm is undeterred and for her fourth album she's coming out fighting, ready to take on all comers and show the world the re-birth of M.I.A.


Matangi by M.I.A. is out now.