M.I.A.'s pop-centric fifth and supposedly final album feels much more like a pit stop than a destination.
There’s an incontrovertible dissonance between M.I.A.’s desire for a widespread, globetrotting message and the considerably smaller-scale leanings of her musical craftsmanship. The problem is she’s not a storyteller rapper, she’s a tone-setter and a stimulator, an initiating stroke of admissible social resistance within the sphere of the marketable mainstream rather than a truly revolutionary dissenting voice. Her cultural antagonism is commodified accordingly: tenuous connections to and a musical sampling of Middle Eastern, Asian, and African culture, but only whatever can be safely and tastefully diffused in the hard edges and square corners of sellable trap beats; references to social movements, political dissension, and the plight of the destitute, displaced, and dispossessed, but only what can be condensed into vague and non-alienating one-liners; maybe even a rogue middle-finger during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, perhaps. M.I.A. wants to make music that serves as a far-reaching call-to-arms, but if her past endeavors indicate anything, it’s that she’s at her best when she’s working without such extreme universality in mind.
But she wants it all, the spotlight and the integrity of a 21st century cultural freedom fighter. She’s spent the last decade trying to be a movement of her own, buying in hard on both her Western pop insurgency and her ostensible self-image as militant social activist. It goes some way to explaining why AIM, her fifth and potentially final studio album, is so absorbed in contemporary political discourse but still doesn’t contribute much to it, restricted by radio-friendly concessions that are supposedly necessary to remain a part of the mainstream. It’s an ages-old idiom: if you speak out against power in a meaningful way, popular media won’t give you a platform, and if popular media gives you a platform, you can’t speak out against power. M.I.A. thinks it’s worth giving a shot anyway.
AIM, more than anything, illustrates just how unlikely a meaningful artistic compromise between her commercial and personal ambitions really is. Besides “Borders”, which contains a simplified critique of Western political apathy (“Police shots, what’s up with that? / Identities, what’s up with that? / Your privilege, what’s up with that?”) that is actually quite compelling, and the ZAYN-featured “Freedun”, which utilizes a combination of hip-hop braggadocio and sociopolitical interrogation instantly recognizable to those familiar with M.I.A.’s album cuts, the songs on AIM suffer from sparse and convoluted messaging, made even less significant by being forced to carry repetitive hooks and static beats. This isn’t a first -- AIM is, after all, the third album following M.I.A.’s somewhat surprise breakthrough hit “Paper Planes”, and she has since had to straddle the two conflicting angles of mainstream bubblegum and subversive agitpop -- but AIM, which M.I.A. has characterized as more “happy” than her other records, seems far more attuned to the frivolous than anything else.
What we get are some familiar M.I.A. moves made without any significance -- creative or political -- behind them. We get “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix)”, which relies on a fairly embarrassing gimmick of bird metaphors and puns (“Squad flock, migrate for the summer / Duck out for some hot weather / Birds of prey and I’m shaking off my feather”), though it is limited by its promising sample-rich backdrop that never actually goes anywhere (the Diplo remix included on the deluxe edition isn’t too much better, but it at least manages an adequate drum beat and a hint of tangible song structure); we get “Finally”, a shrill but no less infectious attempt at lush electronic pop, and we get far too many instances of senseless ad-libbing over emaciated hip-hop beats (“Jump In”, “Bird Song”, etc.).
It’s not all bad, of course, and some stylistic throwbacks to better days reminds us all how good we had it before AIM. She doesn’t revert to the signature approach of Arular and Kala -- minimal elements, heavy emphasis on complex world rhythms, steady, controlled rapping -- until the third-to-last song, “Visa”, not coincidentally the song in which her voice is most present and consistent. “Fly Pirate” stands as another highlight, but more in the genre of the glitchy mosaic chop-ups of Matangi and MAYA in which her unprocessed artistry was much less of a focus. The rest of AIM goes one level of abstraction further from the raw, organic M.I.A. we know with opaque production, even more concessions to conventionality, and wildly drifting ambitions. By deepening her primary commitment to her pop star persona, M.I.A. continues to poison the well; the album inherits the relentless downward trajectory of her discography accordingly.
Consequently, despite claims that the record is to be her last, AIM feels decidedly more like an intermediary stage in her progression rather than a proper finale. It lacks the blockbuster qualities of Jay-Z’s supposed pre-retirement encore The Black Album or Röyksopp’s sweeping and celebratory final album The Inevitable End, for example, or the resigned poignancy of so many past-their-prime artists giving it one last shot. AIM in fact struggles to find any thematic footing at all, nudging in the direction of former glories and testing the waters with more accessible pop tones with reckless abandon, and the result, predictably, is a meager collection of would-be low-charting singles that never approaches anything like a unified farewell. What this suggests is that M.I.A. is just tired, or that music simply isn’t as fulfilling for her as it once was. If that’s the case, it’s at least understandable. But unfortunately that lack of enthusiasm is all too transparent on AIM, and it renders it an absolute failure of a send-off.