By Leah Greenblatt
Updated June 30, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

”You know who I am,” Maya Arulpragasam intones repeatedly on her third full-length’s dense, drilling opener, ”Steppin’ Up.” And indeed, even the most casual consumers of popular culture have a pretty good idea by now: She is M.I.A. — agit-pop provocateur, media lightning rod, ambassadress of multiculti swagger.

What the Sri Lanka-bred Brit isn’t here is a very compelling musician. Much of MAYA sounds murky and almost punishingly discordant, as if the album has been submerged underwater and then set upon by an arsenal of exceptionally peeved power tools. The dizzy dynamism of her earlier work — a global stew of bhangra, baile funk, and hip-hop, politicized and hitched to block-party beats — is largely reduced to inert feedback and industrial noise.

Like her 2008 crossover smash ”Paper Planes,” first single “Born Free” (of the already infamous redhead-massacre video, promptly banned by YouTube) samples an iconic song of the ’70s punk underground — in this case, Suicide’s ”Ghost Rider.” It’s kinetic, but as with so many of the album’s more ambitious tracks, ultimately under-realized. Elsewhere, the new mother shows an unexpected tenderness, as on the reggae-tinged ”It Takes a Muscle” and dreamy ”It Is What It Iz.” It’s not that MAYA is some sort of spectacular failure; it’s just that nothing here feels truly vital, or nearly as revolutionary as she seems to want us to believe. C?

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