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.
Her voice, 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 known) often is dismissed as a vocalist. As Kala, her newly minted second album, hit American retail outlets this week, 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, as 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), Kala incorporates recordings that M.I.A. made in India, Australia, Trinidad and Japan.
The production, by M.I.A. and a select crew - including Baltimore DJ Blaqstarr and Diplo, M.I.A.'s Philly-based former partner - 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's 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 multivocal. Every sound signifies something different.
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 dreams, cross-cultural nightmares and badly translated schoolyard rhymes. They are the human embodiment of the military and economic aggression that makes a term like "Third World" possible.
Although she has been chided for daring to represent said Third World - some people 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 - Kala is powerful because M.I.A. knows firsthand how a marginalized voice sounds.
Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Hear clips of M.I.A.'s music at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost