If nothing else, M.I.A. sounds like she's having fun again. "Sounds like" is the operative phrase here: Say what you will about Maya's poverty of hooks, but I have little doubt that Ms. Arulpragasam took as much bratty delight in unleashing that alienating avantronica sound collage as she did in leaking Lynn Hirschberg's digits. Girlfriend's first two albums netted her a lifetime supply of breathless, this-is-the-Future-of-Music style reviews, so instead of going for the threepeat, she flipped the script. It was almost predictable. M.I.A. is a bomb-thrower, and Maya was a bomb—an act of musical self-immolation from a self-styled outsider uncomfortable with her own marketability, with how beloved she was by well-heeled college kids and apolitical tastemakers. If Maya was the sound of a reluctant pop star leveling her own image, her Vicki Leekx mixtape is the ensuing ground-zero dance party.
What's brought M.I.A. around to dance-pop again is anyone's guess. Maybe she feels like her conspiratorial raving has been partially vindicated by the WikiLeaks spat, or maybe she's just glad to be releasing music in an atmosphere unclouded by truffle-fry fallout. Either way, it's clever PR: M.I.A. was humiliated last year, and instead of continuing to martyr herself, she's showing that she doesn't take herself or her politics half as seriously as her critics think. And she does it without truly apologizing for Maya's mess, since Vicki Leekx shares that album's production team and its sonic palette. As a matter of fact, one of Maya's more obtuse jams, "Steppin' Up," reappears as "Steppin/Up," a danceable offering of glitchy funk that retains some of the abrasive, industrial inflections of the original. "Marsha/Britney" fuses electronic and tribal percussion like a Kala-era gem (it even interpolates the roiling beat from "Bird Flu"), but retains Maya's paranoid topicality, with M.I.A. jeering: "Hey, Marsha/What'd ya do yesterday?/'Cause what I read on your blog story/Don't add up to what you told me."
Promising as it often sounds, Vicki Leekx is definitely a mixtape, a fact evidenced for the better in its unpredictable whirligig of beats and samples, and for the worse in its lack of definite hooks. Even so, the 11:50-14:55 stretch of "Gen N.E.Y." and "Bad Girls" is as sharp as any of M.I.A.'s recent singles, even if both songs are too strange to ever hit the charts. But that's already a major departure from the M.I.A. of Maya, who seemed almost unwilling to write catchy songs, and one which brings M.I.A. back to the position she occupied so brilliantly with Arular: the defiantly eccentric cosmopolitan rebel, who in fusing her sounds and messages, expanded the range of pop music without worrying so much about whether that meant she was being subversive or being co-opted. Fretting her image less and attending more to her sound, it's as though M.I.A. has finally come to grips with the fact that being a pop star means never again being the final authority on what her music means and to whom.
It's better this way: "Paper Planes" might take on an improbable second life as a frat-party jam, M.I.A. might not always be able to present herself in rebel-action-figure mode, and by and large, I think we'll all forgive her if the music works. One of the recurring samples on Vicki Leekx is M.I.A. saying that music should be free. But the lack of a pricetag is probably the least important sense in which M.I.A. is giving this music away: With this mixtape, M.I.A. has made great strides toward liberating her music from herself.