Friday, December 31, 2010

M.I.A. - ViCKi LEEKX mixtape

NICK: Go to and download ViCKi LEEKX, batshit-bananas one-file mixtape by M.I.A. Do it now.

This absurd year could not ask for a more fitting epitaph. After two listens and into a third I remain convinced that M.I.A. will have the last laugh. This year you were not lukewarm on M.I.A. You were with her or you were against her. I was with her and still am. I liked /\/\/\Y/\ a lot and I thought the "Born Free" video was amazing. "Teqkilla" is in my top four or five tracks of the year. I even thought it was cool that she posted that Times Magazine writer's phone number on Twitter. You fuck with someone's shit like that, you better be prepared to reap the whirlwind, that's what I say.

If "of the year" meant not "best of the year" but "most of the year," which is to say, "embodying the year most perfectly, for better or worse," who else but M.I.A. could be called Artist of the Year? (Yes, okay, I know who else, let me finish.) /\/\/\Y/\ is not a pleasant record to listen to and God knows ViCKi LEEKX isn't either. But neither was 2010 a pleasant year to live through. 2010 was the year Facebook surpassed meatspace to become America's most popular plane of reality. In 2010 it stopped being fun and we kept doing it because we couldn't stop. 2010 was the year of Four Loko and Robot Unicorn Attack.

Say what you will about /\/\/\Y/\ as an album, but as a document of this fucked-up time it could not be more perfect. It was shot through with that feeling of breaking-apart that we all knew this year even if we did not talk about it because it was too near to us. In 2010 everything was underlaid with surreality and paranoia. Something was happening, something we all wanted to ignore, and /\/\/\Y/\ grabbed us by the hair and shoved our faces in it. No wonder we didn't like it.

It is now well-established that Pitchfork knows jack shit about music. How they feel about an album has nothing to do with it and everything to do with them. Pitchfork hated /\/\/\Y/\ so much because, decadent aesthetes that they are, they couldn't handle it. It was too much for their delicate constitutions. So they started a backlash and then relaxed in the bathtub with Grizzly Bear. But mark my words: M.I.A. will have the last laugh.

RAJ: Well hell, Nick, I was lukewarm on M.I.A. this year. There's fundamentally interesting things about everything she's been doing recently - there are also fundamentally stupid things about all of it as well. I probably would love Maya (I refuse to use the backslashes) if I really thought it was a provocative, uncompromising "document of this fucked-up time" about alienation and Google being connected to the government and what have you. And there are definitely moments where I see where people are coming from - the sonic chaos of "Teqkilla" and "Stepping Up" is pretty potent as a representation of digital alienation and the attempt in "Lovalot" to get into a terrorist's headspace is as daring as it is unprecedented for a pop song. But Maya is also the sound of M.I.A. hedging her bets hard - nearly half the album is just awful garden-variety pop that manages to be more bland and insincere than most of the Billboard Top 40. Call the album's incoherence an artistic stategy if you must, I'll just call it haphazard and poorly executed.

(Same half-brilliant/half-idiotic thing with the "Born Free" video for that matter. The cinematic elements of it are downright virtuosic in their execution and it's probably a fair point that Westerners tend to avoid empathizing with victims of genocide and should maybe think about it more. But could there be a more heavy-handed way to go about that idea? Like, look, I'll even grant you the shooting-the-little-kid thing if you really need to get the horror of it all across, but I don't see any reasonable way to justify the neccessity of that shot where the disintegration of a kid stepping on a landmine is filmed in loving gory slo-mo detail.)

All that said - this mixtape? It's obviously a retreat from the abrasive experimentation of the album, but retreats don't usually sound so goddamned triumphant. Nick said Vicki Leekx (Jesus, again with the capitalization) isn't a pleasant record to listen to, and I guess wecan debate what pleasant means, but this thing is immediately club-ready in a way that the album certainly wasn't. In fact, the beats here are out-and-out fire one after another - shades of Kala, and I'm one of those Kala-was-best-of-the-past-decade-level types. Old material here is completely revitalized with new beats, and all of the producers are completely on point - we already know what Diplo, Blaqstarr, and Switch can do when they're at their best, but Rusko here finally proves his ability to work effectively as a collaborator, and the presence of Danjahandz (the actual guy behind FutureSex/LoveSounds while Timbaland was mugging) is downright thrilling - there's no actual pinpointing of who did what, but the Meds and Feds remix certainly sounds like Danja working on a fascinating avant-dancefloor level.

And I guess I have to get into M.I.A.'s identity politics here a little bit because of the fascinating "Marsha/Britney". The track starts out with M.I.A. declaring that what she hates most is "fame hos" - red flag right away, since that's pretty much what everyone's been calling M.I.A. for the past year! And as she rolls through a takedown of your average shallow nail-painting ditzy Britney type, more flags pile up - "she's always claiming that she's part Navajo" (leaning on your backstory!), "You wanna be the next best thing... But you can't sing!" (have you heard "Tell Me Why"?). And then the hook "Hey Marsha! Whatcha do yesterday? What I read on the blog story/don't add up to what you told me".

Now, I guess it's possible that M.I.A. is just completely delusional, but I'm going to give her credit and say she's self-aware enough to know that all these criticisms obviously have been aimed at her, and her response is effectively "So what?". Yes, she's guilty on some of these things, but so is your average garden variety pop star, and the "blog stories" aren't exactly trying to tear them to pieces they way they've gone after M.I.A. All this because M.I.A. is making people think - about globalization, about terrorism, about genocide - while your more vapid stars really aren't. So yeah, maybe M.I.A. is prone to empty revolutionary sloganeering and not having a position paper to back up each of her pop songs, but she seems to be arguing that that kind of thing is better than nothing - which is a pretty remarkable self-assessment of her own limitations and her own strengths. And certainly a better response to press criticism than the childish tweeting the phone number thing.

But all of that is unimportant compared to the actual truth of the music here, which is just stunningly hot. Cop it immediately - for cranky types like myself who demand track separation, this is a split up version.

Other thoughts:
- It really confuses me why M.I.A. still bothers to work with Diplo. There was no dick move this year larger than Diplo going to both Twitter and the New York Times to badmouth an album and an artist he had been working with - especially when said artist is the primary reason that he has a career in the first place.

- I know Pitchfork is a pretty easy punching bag, but it seems a little unfair to just say they couldn't handle Maya - I mean, Pitchfork praise of No Age and Animal Collective (back in their more abrasive days) is no small part of the reason why both bands have major careers now. I really would like to see a convincing argument about why exactly Pitchfork is so evil - like, sure, they make bad calls, and the subset of music that they approve of is maybe more limited than it should be, but find me a music publication that doesn't have those same exact problems. Also, I like Kanye West and Grizzly Bear.


  1. Danse Manatee got a 3.9 on Pitchfork, Raj

  2. I have no problem with an artist being annoying/stupid/childish as long as the music is good. Mixtape sounds good so far

  3. Just listened to /\/\/\Y/\ to confirm that, yes, I do like it a lot. It has weak tracks but not many—"Tell Me Why," "Space" and "Caps Lock" are the only ones that really don't do it for me. I don't know where you got the "nearly half" figure. In fact, do tell: which tracks do you consider "garden variety pop? I could see "XXXO" and "It Takes a Muscle," but I find both of those irresistible myself.

    I don't think the album's incoherence is an "artistic strategy" anymore than her infamous Governor's Island show this summer was a deliberate act of provocation. Everything I know about her, including that punkass article in the Times Magazine, suggests to me that she has no idea what she's doing. If the eyes are the window to the soul, what do these eyes tell us about the soul that lies behind them?

    I say that thousand-yard stare is unfeigned. These are not the eyes of a provocative artist and canny self-promoter making incisive statements about the state of the world in the Internet age. These are the eyes of someone lost in a haze: still reeling from the one-two punch of sudden fame and motherhood, rarely leaving her house, high all the time, probably an Internet addict, possibly an alcoholic.

    For me, /\/\/\Y/\—and the mixtape as well—are about her, not about the world. Its critique of the Internet age is not direct but refracted: she is saying, perhaps without even meaning to, Look at what the Internet has done to me. That's what I meant when I called it a "document" of 2010: she wasn't trying to encapsulate the zeitgeist; she was just trying to express her own feelings of solipsistic borderline-insanity, which happen to be quite representative of the zeitgeist.

    About Pitchfork: This conversation is too big for a comment, but I'll say a few words. If you like I can back up my opinions with arguments later but that will take time.
    -I think they overpraise Animal Collective a great deal, and I especially think they overpraise Panda Bear, who in my opinion is definitely the Paul McCartney of AC.
    -Dark Fantasy is good, sure, but I'm sorry, it is NOT a 10.0 album. After not giving a 10.0 to any new release in eight years, they give it to an album that doesn't deserve it. In my opinion their credibility is destroyed.
    -I hate Grizzly Bear, although I admit that I've never made it past track 4 of Veckatimest.

  4. - "Garden variety" is probably imprecise, although I'd argue that description extends to "XXXO", "It Takes a Muscle" (which is just a straight-up synthpop cover, I believe), and "Tell Me Why" (weird sample aside, the slathered on AutoTune and thin melody gets it here). If we talk about just awful pop tracks, you can add "Space" and "It Iz What It Iz" to the first list. The "nearly half" figure wasn't counting the bonus tracks (so 5/12), although I don't think those are particularly well-done either - your mileage may vary, obviously.

    - So is this album Maya's Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? If I had to pick a Kanye album to compare this one to, it probably would be 808s and Heartbreak - a raw sort of emotional purge complete with large doses of utterly ill-advised nonsense (even Maya doesn't have anything as dumb as "you movin' like a Robocop"). I guess I wouldn't argue with your characterization of the album as a document of her emotional state (and thus the state of the world at large or whatever) - I just feel like such a document is inherently less interesting than one that A) has enough distance from the emotion to make an effective comment about it and/or B) has a much greater degree of artistic competence (we differ here, obv). The mixtape, for example, doesn't really have that much of A either (unless you buy my above ramblings), but the B is there in spades.

    - Yeah, the 10.0 is kinda dumb. If you read the review, the 10.0 really is being given to the entirety of Kanye's output/cultural impact over the past few months, which may even be kind of fair, but obviously, the review should be focused entirely on the album itself and it isn't. But it's hardly a travesty - this is slight score inflation, not the propping up complete trash. If they'd given it a 9.7 or whatever the last Animal Collective album got, no one would have batted an eye.

    - Dude, are you going at Paul McCartney now? How great is Wings?

  5. I'm only going at Paul McCartney inasmuch as comparing him unfavorably to John Lennon is one of rock snobbery's most indispensable conceptual touchstones. Sure, Paul doesn't deserve to be gone at anymore than John already went at him. Read not Paul the actual Beatle but Paul the universally recognized symbol of expertly-crafted but ultimately superficial and banal fangless inoffensiveness. If the Paul comment touched your buttons, forget all I said about Paul per se—know only that I meant to accuse PANDA BEAR of the above.

    Here's my point:
    -First, Person Pitch bores me to OBLIVION. I've listened to it a number of times and it just does not do it for me.
    -Second, I really like Animal Collective, but my favorite songs of theirs are mostly Avey Tare songs: "For Reverend Green," "Fireworks," "In The Flowers," "What Would I Want? Sky." Panda Bear songs, like "Derek" and "My Girls" and "Brother Sport" I find rather banal and fangless.

    Okay, here's the PAYLOAD:
    The REASON Pitchfork overpraises Panda Bear so blithely is as follows—watch this!
    Okay: Your average Pitchfork writer is now probably edging into his thirties, probably married and probably with a kid. You average Pitchfork writer is now already a DAD. But because he still writes for Pitchfork, he wants to believe that he is still cool. He wants to believe that he is still worthy to be keeping one foot in cooldom. You see where I'm going with this: Pitchfork writers love Panda Bear because he is still cool even though he is a dad. He makes them believe that it is possible to remain cool even when you are a dad.

    But the thing is, Panda Bear is not cool. Panda Bear is banal. The other leading candidate for official indie dad, Kevin Barnes, lost his claim to the title after the drama documented on Hissing Fauna.

    This may be going nowhere. I'll reread it tomorrow or maybe the next day and see if it's going anywhere, and if it's going anywhere maybe I'll take it there.

  6. Not content with having mocked a rock icon, Nick proceeded to mock the entire institution of fatherhood.

    Also when I get around to starting my death metal band, it's now going to be called "Banal and Fangless".

  7. "Banal & Fangless" was already going to be the name of my law firm.

  8. "bad girls" = m.i.a.'s best work