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Is MIA the Julian Assange of Pop Music?

With her new Vicki Leakx mixtape, Maya Arulpragrasm reiterates her case as America’s most important, politically savvy young popstar.

MIA is an imperfect politico. Anyone who paid even half-assed attention to the firebrand pop star last year can tell you that. There was the gruesome, Romain Gavras-directed video for her punk single, “Born Free,” which featured redheads being rounded up by SWAT teams and seemed to make a vague statement about immigration. There were the 35-year-old’s tenuous, Tom Bell-ish diatribes accusing Google and Facebook of being strawmen for the CIA. And, of course, there was the disastrous New York Times Magazine interview, in which writer Lynn Hirschberg went on a quote-distorting warpath to paint her as a manipulative idiot. (For revenge, MIA posted Hirschberg’s phone number on Twitter.) Though the vocalist, born Maya Arulpragrasm, is a savvy media figure and a brilliant artist, 2010 was the year fans and critics really started to believe her position as an agitprop musician was chipped. We need our political icons to be succinct and stalwart; MIA was neither.

There was precedent. When the Los Angeleno (via London, via Sri Lanka) released 2005’s brilliant beat-twitching, world-sampling Arular, named for her father, she claimed he was a Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka, waging a rebel defense for the Hindu Tamils who were being persecuted by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Her references were vague, but the iconography she used was not. She emblazoned gritty images of tigers and guns across the album, her Web site, her videos. (It was later revealed that her father had never been a member of the Tamil Tigers, but belonged to a less-violent rebel group, Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students, and had trained with the PLO.) But the point was never to create policy, but to shed light on the genocide in Sri Lanka. Her follow-up, 2007’s Kala (named for her mother), was recorded all around the world because she couldn’t get a visa back to the U.S. She blamed that fact on the political nature of her lyrics, owing to the Tigers yet again, but it could not be confirmed, thanks to a closed-door policy on visa rejection.

If you’ve paid attention to MIA from the start, you know her rebel tale has always had hairline cracks. But her intentions are true. And the fact is, in America, for a young, politically minded pop icon, MIA’s still the best we've got.

On December 31, 2010, MIA released a free mixtape through her Twitter titled VICKI LEAKX. It was a follow-up to last year’s ///Y/, the album that generated all the negative hype, and which was subsequently unfairly maligned by music critics and stalwart fans alike, despite being one of the most musically progressive albums in the mainstream last year. Typically overstuffed with globe-trotting beats, Bollywood-xeroxed samples and claustrophobic synths, the only thing about the mixtape that superseded the explosive innovation of its sound was the clear-headed, cutting nature of her lyrics.

MIA forever sounds like a playground double-dutch session in the middle of the Matrix, and the album’s content mirrored her main narratives -- the sometimes-unlawful transparency of an information society, the subjectivity of security cameras, the shameless profiteering of corporate war culture, global racism and oppression toward immigrants (often of color), the idea that we’re all being monitored at all times.

“Overdrive” puts a cutting anti-war cheer over a video game bass line; “Listen Up” charmingly defends her personal-is-political politics from detractors. On an ominous dubstep beat, “Generation N-E-Y” expresses an apocalypse generation’s dark defiance of corporate control, her chorus declaiming “You can have money but you can’t have me... Generation N-E-Y, we’re already dead.” On the tape’s intro, she’s programmed the generic MAC computer ladyrobot voice to say We choose the right format, we leak the information to the public, and we defend ourselves against inevitable legal and political attack.