Mya Arulpragasam has a habit of scrunching up her mouth. In photographs, she often pulls her purple- or orange-painted lips into a hard-core rapper's sneer -- or a punk's, a bit of old Sid Vicious creeping into the visage of this 30-year-old, London-born, frequently displaced daughter of Sri Lanka. It's not a pretty girl's look. It makes kissing unlikely and conversation likely confrontational.
Her voice, always at the center of her continent-hopping, avant-garde, beat-happy songs, emerges from that wry face. It's not always easy to take or, for some, to take seriously.
Despite being universally praised as a harbinger of pop's future, M.I.A. (as Arulpragasam is more economically known) is often dismissed as a vocalist. As "Kala," her newly minted second album, hits American retail outlets Tuesday, its reception is another case in point. Even in reviews that acknowledge "Kala" could be the release of the year, words such as "flat," "sulky" and "limited" describe M.I.A.'s rapping and singing.
On one level, this is minor stuff, since M.I.A.'s voice is just one element in her efforts to expand dance-floor consciousness. Made while she traveled the globe after being denied entry to the U.S. (visa problems sabotaged a scheduled collaboration with Timbaland -- lucky her, since the one track they did make is the album's worst), "Kala" incorporates field recordings that M.I.A. made in India, Australia, Trinidad and Japan.
The production, by M.I.A. and a select crew -- London-based "fidget house" originator Switch, Baltimore DJ Blaqstarr and Diplo, M.I.A.s' Philly-based former partner, now estranged -- draws on the widest possible array of sounds and nightclub trends.
There are Bollywood hooks and Tamil Nadu village drums; the spaciousness of dub and the relentlessness of Baltimore thump beats; the lilt of Caribbean soca, and whimsical references to indie rock icons Jonathan Richman and the Pixies.
From the chicken cackling and children's shouts on "Birdflu" to the gunfire and cash-register rings that punctuate a Clash sample on "Paper Planes," the music on "Kala" is truly multi-vocal. Every sound signifies something different, driving the music's meaning into some new corner.
So maybe what comes out of M.I.A.'s mouth isn't the key to her music. Yet to dismiss her voice is to miss the whole point of "Kala."
The album hits hardest by embodying the process by which certain voices are bottled up and distorted within the global noise of what M.I.A. calls "Third World Democracy."
Those lost articulations re-emerge, sometimes unwelcome, in a babble of exotic wet dreams, cross-cultural nightmares and badly translated schoolyard rhymes. They are the human embodiment of the process of military and economic aggression that makes a term like "Third World" possible. M.I.A.'s music strives to make sense of that cacophony, and the first voice she seeks to free is her own.
Although she's been chided for daring to represent said Third World -- some feel that her year at a fancy London art school disqualifies her from that position, despite the impoverishment and exile she endured as a youth because of her father's involvement with Sri Lanka's militant Tamil Tigers -- "Kala" is powerful because M.I.A. knows firsthand how a marginalized voice sounds.
The album is named after M.I.A.'s mother, who raised three children alone after her husband, whose name graced his daughter's first album, "Arular," followed his ideology off to war. Almost every track on "Kala" presents a character whose ambitions have somehow been thwarted but who is finding some tricky route back to herself.
M.I.A. has made that journey. The glamour she accrued had a cost: Many listeners assumed that her male producers, especially her then-lover Diplo, were responsible for her music. Making "Kala" became a mission to disprove that claim. But some unpleasant surprises were in store. The Third World citizens she hoped to celebrate often had no use for a female champion; sometimes, she had to bring her brother along on some excursions, she told an interviewer, because "when you're a chick making [things] happen in India, that's a problem. You don't have a mouth."
So how does a woman speak for men who don't even want to hear her slightest opinion? She smiles, gives up a girlish giggle, and tricks them. Throughout "Kala," M.I.A. sings or raps in her usual offhanded way, dropping bombs like daisies on the path of her music's skittish rhythms.
"Boyz," the album's current single, starts like a taunt, with a hyperactive drumroll and M.I.A. sounding like a Muppet singing the "Menomena" song. The punch line of this call-out to "no money boys" is that they go from being "crazy" and "raw" to starting a war. Macho posturing plus poverty equals violence: There's a Third World reality that M.I.A.'s song renders anything but abstract.