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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The last year or so has been a busy one for the musician known M.I.A. She performed at the Grammys while nine months pregnant, she had her baby, and more recently was the subject of a high-profile magazine article. And she's just released her third album called "Maya."

Oliver Wang is our reviewer and he says while it's far from her best work, the record still proves that M.I.A is an artist whos work is unparalleled.

OLIVER WANG: Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. M.I.A., has long proven herself a master at courting controversy and reaping attention. But the lead up to her latest album was a new achievement. First, she produced a graphically violent music video that was instantly banned from YouTube. Then veteran New York Times writer Lynn Hirschberg turned out a staggering 8,000 words explaining - among other things - how M.I.A.'s politics are contradictory and naive.

Listeners could have reached that same conclusion in about four bars.

(Soundbite of song, "Born Free")

Ms. MAYA ARULPRAGASAM (Singer): (Singing) I don't wanna talk about money, 'cause I got it. And I don't wanna talk about hoochies, 'cause I been it. And I don't wanna be that fake, cause you can do it.

WANG: My experience with every new M.I.A. album tends to be the same: the pre-release is so fever-pitched, I feel exhausted before I hear even a single song, and then I slip in some earbuds, touch play, and my head promptly explodes. This is a good thing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARULPRAGASAM: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WANG: Unlike the brighter tones on M.I.A.'s last album, "Kala," much of "Maya" pushes you down into dark, basement clubs, where her producers serve up glitchy, noisy beats that careen between cold, concrete walls.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARULPRAGASAM: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WANG: It's these moments which make other songs on "Maya" so surprisingly off-note. Perhaps befitting her growing mainstream stature, a few tracks feature the kind of post-disco electro-beats and studio-tweaked vocals that seem better suited to artists such as Robyn, Ke$ha or even Katy Perry. This is not a good thing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARULPRAGASAM: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WANG: Despite these lapses, the rest of the album highlights what's compelling about her voice. It's not her range or clarity, really it's not, but rather her distinctively piercing timbre, with its exotic mash of Kingston patois, Bristol brogue and Brooklyn swagger.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ARULPRAGASAM: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WANG: It's often said her voice serves as an oracle for a global future where shanty towns stare down high-rises. Sure, some of this is artifice M.I.A. is signed to a major label, lives in a tony L.A. neighborhood, and she's engaged to a billionaire's son but pop figures rarely share an authentic self. Just like the rest of us, they're too complex or, frankly, boring.

But through their songs, the better ones craft personas that fill the needs of listeners, whether for sensitive poets or sexy cheerleaders. M.I.A. is a self-styled third-world rabble-rouser, and whatever the distance between the life she leads and the life she sings, the sonic force of her music feels as real as we want it to be.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: The artist is M.I.A. Reviewer Oliver Wang runs the audio blog Soul-Sides.com

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