Don’t judge a man by his mixtape. That’s always been among my informal music rules. Not because mixtapes are less substantive, but because they tend to be unfinished, unpolished releases more akin to a galley than to a final product. The format has had a long and dynamic history in hip hop, and these days mixtapes are mostly used as promotional material to generate buzz for an artist ahead of an official, commercial release (and to grant them the freedom of borrowing beats and bits of songs without having to clear samples). But given the upswing in artists across genres releasing mixtapes of note (Lil Wayne, Joe Budden, jj), I’m ok with judging them every once in a while. And M.I.A.’s recently released ViCKi LEEKX, in particular, deserves some analysis.
The mixtape, released deep into the night on New Year’s Eve, is a follow-up to M.I.A.’s very much anticipated, pretty heavily promoted, and widely criticized // / Y / (Interscope/XL/N.E.E.T.), released last summer. The album, her third, lacked the sort of hook-heavy anthems and intriguing, subversive pop we’d come to expect from her. Unlike her previous releases Kala and Arular, // / Y / was flat, unfocused, and not particularly memorable.
Still, it seemed the public was as much disappointed in her as they were in her music. A couple of months before the album’s release, M.I.A.’s likeability suffered a huge blow at the hands of Lynn Hirschberg’s unflattering, but spot-on, New York Times magazine profile. And in what came to be known as truffle-gate, she reacted to her disapproval of the story by (rather inappropriately) posting Hirschberg’s phone number on Twitter. Then there was a bevy of Kanye-like responses to critics, a terrible, much-blogged-about performance at Governor’s Island, and a whole ton of defensiveness. And, as happens with artists whose personas are as big as—or bigger than—their music, the public grew to dislike Maya as much as they disliked // / Y /.
To be fair, it’s got to be an excruciating process to conceptualize and create a follow-up to a record as successful as Kala, especially when your music is as distinctly stylized as M.I.A.’s has been. While she was ready to take a risk and move in a different direction with // / Y /, she didn’t quite deliver. And we still hadn’t gotten our fill of her multiculti, genre-bending pop. That’s something ViCKi LEEKX seems to acknowledge. The mixtape is a cohesive, if barely coherent, 36-minute-long mash-up of glossy, techy party beats strung together in a single track. There’s auto-tune, there’s rapping, there’s a Nicki Minaj sample and a series of Julian Assange quotes read aloud by a woman with a South Asian-sounding accent. There are gunshots and bombs exploding and cash registers going ka-ching. In other words, it’s a nod to classic M.I.A, including production from frequent collaborators Diplo, Switch, Blaqstarr, and Rusko.
But she doesn’t steer away from last year’s controversy, addressing detractors early on in the tape: “M.I.A.’s here to stay/I’ve got people on my case”; “Imitators stay away/While I’m sick they try to take/Yeah, they like what I’m eating and they want my piece of cake.” Still, much of ViCKi LEEKX deals with her usual subject matter, and M.I.A. weaves deftly between sex (“Let me hump you/Let me hump you baby from the back”), party girls (“I’ve got imitators, haters, and some psychos/But what I hate most is bitches who are fame hoes”; “You wanna be the next big thing/It thing/Do anything/But you can’t sing”), and anti-consumerism (“Your shoes could feed a village/You should think about that”; “You can have my money/But you can’t have me/Here’s my money/Give me shit I don’t need/What you say I need is just so unnecessary”).
Like anything M.I.A. touches, ViCKi LEEKX is blatantly political. It is, after all, a big shout-out to WikiLeaks. And so there are references to the government and freedom and America, all concepts that fit her narrative as a so-called political artist. But the mixtape, much like her career, is filled with vague notions about all of those things. As always, M.I.A. is saying something…but it’s not clear what. Still, if the future sounds anything like ViCKi LEEKX, here’s to hoping she keeps trying to tell us.