M.I.A. – AIM Review
2. Go Off
3. Bird Song [prod. by Blaqstarr]
4. Jump In
5. Freedun [feat. Zayn Malik]
6. Foreign Friend [feat. Dexta Daps]
8. A.M.P. (All My People)
9. Ali R U OK?
11. Fly Pirate
M.I.A. won. The globalized pop of her imagined “World Town” is the new norm as cultures collide and ally across our radio waves each and every day. After all, when Justin Bieber finds credibility crooning atop thudding drops and blissed out island riddims, what exactly is the point of Maya Arulpragasam?
The sounds she, Diplo and Switch pioneered may now run the world, but for all the new generation’s brazen multiculturalism, few have mirrored the overt political stances, agit-pop attitudes or self-destructive creative impulses of the Anglo-Sri Lankan star. M.I.A.’s refusal to conform and curb her behavior remains admirable and, while she may no longer sound like an alien being from the future underground of some pan-national metropolis, she still manages to sit outside mainstream pop (even while asserting a considerable influence on it).
AIM, her fifth and (supposedly) last album, promised to provoke; M.I.A. has heartily taken up the cause of refugees worldwide (most notably from Syria). What might have seemed like an uncontroversial step when Aylan Kurdi’s dead body washed up on European shores, now feels a more fraught position as the subsequent months of saw terror unfold and mass immigration take place – as a result, few popstars have joined her in vocally supporting the refugee cause. “Borders”, AIM’s stellar lead single, is both portentous in sonic tone and flippant in its delivery as Maya masterfully juxtaposes our modern fripperies (“being bae, what’s up with that?”) with terse geo-politics (“your privilege, what’s up with that?”). M.I.A.’s dead-eyed delivery of the verse sardonically ridicules a hashtag culture that makes political posturing easy, but ultimately empty.
Love or loath her politics, few can question M.I.A.’s commitment. She puts up and refuses to shut up. It’s sad then, that, in a political climate ripe for a scathing tour de force polemic from a politically savvy popstar, AIM struggles to keep its focus. When M.I.A. zeros in on the issue of welcoming the alien, the album soars. “Foreign Friend” is beautiful composed jam that floats gloriously in the ample space it is afforded. Guest vocalist Dexta Daps delivers a rich and soulful hook against which M.I.A. turns reactionary conventions on their head (“then we climb over the fence…then we pay rent” – “say life’s a box of chocolates, we say: “who packed it””). This is pop music that is both charming and incendiary.
Sadly, these soulful and provocative moments set atop immaculate produced beats prove too few and far between. It’s a shame M.I.A. couldn’t replicate the jarring assault on the eardrums that was her 2010 album MAYA. That record was severely flawed, but it was informed by a righteous anger. AIM, by comparison, feels almost perversely relaxed. Tossed off ideas (“Jump In”, “R U OK?”) sit alongside the finished article (“Finally”, “Survivor”) while more daring efforts are left on the cutting room floor (“Swords”). In this sense, AIM is not a call to arms, but a fitting follow up to Matangi (2013) – an uneven and ultimately uneventful album that reasserted M.I.A.’s hit making ability and melodic prowess.
The album then, despite its sharp political edges, plays like M.I.A. club night; full of jangling soundclashes, strangely satisfying detours and scattered bangers, but nothing that truly cuts deep. “A.M.P.” plays like a less revolutionary “Bucky Done Gun” – a slice of braggadocio that ultimately stays in its lane despite M.I.A.’s mean snarl and hot hook (“baby got back? I got front”). “Bird Song”, likewise, is a vintage M.I.A. Bollywood banger as Blaqstarr’s sublimely remixes the “Oru Kili Uruguthu” sample. Sadly, other than inane eccentricities, M.I.A. has absolutely nothing to say on the track. It’s testament to her timing that she still sounds badass, but this is the epitome of a tossed off wasted opportunity.
“Visa” encapsulates the album as a whole. The clipped beat is utterly irresistible as M.I.A. sleepily (but nevertheless craftily) plays a self-referential word game. It’s cute, fun and genuinely good pop, but it is also undeniably the product of an artist on autopilot. It’s testament to M.I.A.’s innate abilities that “Visa” is the kind of track she could write in her sleep, but it’s also telling that in spite of having ample real world and personal inspiration, Maya sounds like a spent force. She has too good an ear for innovation and too strong an understanding of her own aesthetic to ever consider releasing bad album, but if AIM is anything to go by, the revolutionary phase of M.I.A.’s career is well and truly over.
If Maya wants to turn goodness back into greatness, she either needs to wholly and coherently embrace her own politics on wax – or she has to risk releasing a stinker, to achieve something transcendent. AIM is frustratingly safe and, as pleasurable as it may be, no one listens to an M.I.A. record for cosy reassurance.