M.I.A.'s pop-centric fifth and supposedly final album feels much more like a pit stop than a destination.



Label: Interscope
US Release Date: 2016-09-09
UK Release Date: 2016-09-09

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.