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At Electric Factory, M.I.A.'s edginess slips

The high point of the career of Maya Arulpragrasam - better known as M.I.A. - as a pop provocateur came on the night of the Grammys in 2009.

The high point of the career of Maya Arulpragrasam - better known as M.I.A. - as a pop provocateur came on the night of the Grammys in 2009.

That was when M.I.A., a British agit-rapper of Sri Lankan descent, upstaged Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. by sashaying across American TV screens in black-and-white polka dots while nine months pregnant to the tune of "Swagga Like Us."

The song's boastful hook - "No one on the corner has swagger like us" - was pulled from "Paper Planes," the hit that turned M.I.A. into a different brand of international pop star. And it was that song she used to close a frustratingly short, not-so-sweet show at the Electric Factory on Sunday, bonding with her multicultural audience by pumping her fist along with the crowd to the song's samples of gunshots.

"Paper Planes" declared M.I.A. to be a "bona fide hustler, makin' my name." And up until her Grammy triumph, she had done a bang-up job of just that, beginning in 2004 with her mixtape collaboration with Philadelphia DJ Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism. The following year she released her global street-beat debut, Arular (named after her father, a member of the Sri Lankan militant rebels the Tamil Tigers), and in 2007 she put out the breakthrough Kala (named for her mother).

M.I.A. has staked out unique ground. She's a politically outspoken female star who refuses to be objectified - and repurposes hip-hop gangsta-ese for her own ends. At the same time she has positioned herself as a Third World spokesman and "the ultimate refugee." But her steps have grown unsteady of late, as the up-from-the-underground star takes great pains to make it clear that she has no interest in the mainstream brass ring.

Maybe that's why her just-more-than-an-hour set at the Factory was marred by such an abrasive sound mix, which improved only slightly toward the end. ("I like how my mike sounds, it's quite nice," she told the sound man before the buzzing "Tezkilla," in which she looked silly swigging liquid from a liquor bottle. "Could have gotten there earlier, though." Yep, it could have.)

From its title, Maya, you might think M.I.A.'s confrontational (and disappointing) new album would be her most personal to date. Instead, its wall of digital noise, which aims to offer insight into the wired-yet-alienated way we live, loses her human voice amid the clutter.

M.I.A., who was accompanied by a DJ, several dancers, and three burka-clad backup singers who remained in a dimly lit corner of the stage, did connect with her fans physically. She crowd-surfed stylishly in her long-sleeved buttoned-up black-and-white ensemble during a ruggedly rhythmic "Bamboo Banga" and the closing, cathartic "Paper Planes." She sat atop speakers stacked four high during her "Born Free," a single that samples the 1970s electro-punk band Suicide, and brought a couple of dozen enthusiastic audience members on stage while she rapped, "I got something to say." (The song's controversial video features red-headed youths being rounded up by U.S. paramilitary forces and executed.)

M.I.A. has assembled an avid audience eager to embrace club music of a higher intelligence. That audience seems to be getting smaller, though. Last time she came through town, in 2008, she sold out the Factory; this time it was but two-thirds full.

The reason for the shrinkage was made obvious by her performance. While some of Maya's aggressively techie tracks are propulsive or sonically intriguing, a scant few bother to try to match the energetic catchiness of "Paper Planes," or Arular's "Galang," which was a highlight on Sunday. By making music that's intentionally uninviting, she made certain that no one would mistake her for a superficial pop star.