Piracy Funds Truth

Piracy Funds Truth

One of the many overlooked revelations from the ongoing WikiLeaks fiasco would be familiar to music fans. In the midst of all the diplomatic subversion, the backroom deals, the imperial meddling, the US embassy in Madrid still had time to threaten the Spanish government with a “blacklist” if it didn’t pass a new copyright law more in line with the rest of the West. If approved, the law would in essence turn file-sharers into criminals just like in the States. Doesn’t exactly cast the the US embassy in the best light. No wonder the establishment is howling for Julian Assange’s blood.

If any artist understands the implications of this, it’s M.I.A. She very well may be the musical equivalent of WikiLeaks: tech savvy, uncompromising, brutally honest. She also spend the bulk of 2010 being hounded to no end. So it’s appropriate that she wrapped up a rough year with an online mixtape puckishly titled Vicki Leekx.

The album is both a return to form and something new for the pop-culture-jammer. One of the few valid critiques of Maya was that its cold, stripped-down computerized beats tended to overtake the sincerity of its lyrics (then again, that was possibly the point). On Vicki Leekx, that same feel is there, but pulled back even further, throwing the balance back in favor of her signature bombast. Still, there’s nothing nearly radio-friendly as “Sunshowers” or “Paper Planes” here, or even “Born Free” for that matter. It’s a firm rebuke that confounds the listener almost as much as it probably does the critics and record execs.

In that respect, the free, pro-pirate availability of Vicki Leekx is just as much a part its content as its form. Overall, the whole thing has the feel of a hack-tivist communique. Nineteen tracks long, it runs as one continuous string, and no song is longer than a couple minutes. Now and again we hear a tinny, robotic voice delivering info-age slogans with cool, calculated menace. Every possible Nintendo-fied sound you can think of is packed in there; it might also be the most effective use of auto-tune this writer has heard yet. And then there are the moments when the cacophony clears for M.I.A.’s own voice:

“They say I pick big battles with the government
Immigration department
For the people that live in the tenements
Our voices carry our sentiments.”

It’s more a brief warning than a manifesto--much like the fractured, raw, uncensored and often enraging material that Assange and company have made public. In short, this is M.I.A. in her element. She’s always been keen on blurring the line between the personal and political. And it’s these moments that are the most rewarding on Vicki Leekx.

“Marsha/Britney” lambastes the ever-present model culture with searing vitriol directed against women who “wanna be a model for American Apparel.” “Your shoes could feed a village,” she rails, “you should think about that.” It’s a moment that manages to be worldly and specific, delicious and poignant at the same time. (Now just wait for the song to pop up on the playlist at your local American Apparel location; that’ll really be a head-fuck!)

For all the great moments here, though, the feel of Vicki Leekx takes some getting used to. Much like Maya, a first listen is disorienting, perhaps even more so thanks to the brevity of each song. Listeners aren’t presented with quick and easy hooks that they can pick and choose on their iPods. Instead, we’re forced to be patient through the entire 36 minutes to get the full effect, and we’re left with the distinct feeling that there’s something very much verboten about these sounds and ideas.

Several times throughout the album we’re told by a sampled-and-processed M.I.A. that music should be free, and by the end we’re paying such close attention that we can’t help but ask why it isn’t. Why do culture and information pose such a threat? It’s a question we’re being asked repeatedly nowadays. Perhaps when the truth is outlawed, only outlaws will tell the truth.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago.  He runs the website Rebel Frequencies and is a columnist for SoCiArts.com.  He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.