As one of the most provocative figures in music today, it’s hardly surprising that the prelude to M.I.A’s fifth and potentially final album wasn’t a smooth ride. Having dropped her acclaimed, controversial track Borders last year, the singer continued to court controversy in her usual style with threats to (once again) leak her new record and complaints about label clashes.
This characteristically volatile lead up from M.I.A seemed to hold the promise of something with all the confrontational power that we’ve come to expect. But with AIM, M.I.A comes very to close to missing her parting shot.
Although the album continues in the same politically charged vein that Borders channelled, something of M.I.A’s powerhouse vitriol fails to quite kick in over the record. Having stated that AIM would be her “cleanest” album to date, and would show a side of M.I.A that was more about a “glass half full”, those promises translate to an uncertain beginning.
This record does drop the defined cultural inspirations that previous releases bounced off. But, as the scope of her commentary extends to much more global proportions, it feels fitting that AIM perhaps channels a bleaker, western world musically. Launching with Borders, swiftly followed by Skrillex collaboration Go Off, you are getting the full force of M.I.A’s punch off the bat. While that introduction doesn’t weave the lush, rich textures that we may have come to expect from M.I.A, Go Off moves towards a driving, almost meditative state.
But as the record trudges onwards, something in it really does struggle to find its way. In much the same way that M.I.A’s recent comments questioning the Black Lives Matter movement seemed blustering and unexpected from the usually razor sharp singer, the first half of AIM feels similarly bewildered. Starting with the stark, eccentric Birdsong; the Blaqstarr Remix sits M.I.A’s vocals right out in front, where her musings on ornithology fail don’t quite hit home with the subtler meaning.
Moving forward and the slightly lame quality to M.I.A’s lyrics is what’s really bugging me on AIM. Her usual talent for turning the commonplace on it’s head with a quick lash of her tongue, seems to be absent across tracks like Foreign Friend and Freedun. The latter is so nearly poised as a startling pop gem, a glittering collaboration with Zayn Malik. Gorgeous hooks and melodies, Malik’s vocal’s are pop gold meets Middle Eastern romance. However, there’s a boredom to the cliches, even the playful “People’s Republic of Swaggerstan” feels lacklustre.
There is a sense that, without her vitriol, M.I.A is lost for words. Maybe in taking on so much in this record, you get the feeling that she isn’t entirely sure where to go. Finally is sound in it’s sparse composition, but even this affirming track has M.I.A checked out already. Collaborating with Jamaican Dancehall star Dexta Daps on Foreign Friend, she’s got a killer vocal part on her hands; one which could match up to Jamie Foxx on Kanye’s Gold Digger. But again, something isn’t adding up. Even her own commentary on the inspiration behind the track fails to shed any light on what M.I.A is really trying to say with this one.
A.M.P (All My People) delves a bit deeper, with a dubstep inspired anthemic feel. And Ali r u ok? sees M.I.A touching back on that talent for taking everyday stories, and opening out those snapshots into the bigger picture. Hard going and staccato, the battering vocal sample feels like a warm up, and familiar lyrics are once again shot through with knowing irony. In fact, it’s at this point on the album that M.I.A finds her stride again.
The second half of AIM is pretty much euphoric by contrast; someone has flipped the switch and M.I.A has got her feet under her, ready to rip at the system with all her might once more. Fly Pirate keeps running at the pace set by the quick fire Visa, M.I.A pushes into the depths of dubstep without sacrificing her messy, wide reaching style.
Making a second foray into pop, Survivor somehow succeeds where Freedun falls short. Channelling dancehall in her deep vocal melodies, the touch of autotune and shimmering synths, M.I.A tries on “life affirming” and this time, finds that it fits. It’s almost a relief to hear her cry holla, and a refrain of “say my name” on The New International Sound is a conscious reference to powerhouse pop history, rather than a cliched repeat.
The brash, clashing blades on Swords ushers in a hypnotic outcry from M.I.A, full of ragged sounds that come together in a beautifully textured track. Talk is an infectious kick at the world of social media, a flat out dance beat forms the back drop and harks back to Kala era. There is a sense of nostalgia around AIM, facing down what might be her last album M.I.A is definitely returning to some old themes. Sometimes in a sort of homage to former glories, but elsewhere reinterpreting the fire of albums like Matangi.
Signing off with the thoughtful Platforms, a track that partners Borders to bookend the record. Looming and more melodic than other songs, coupled with brash vocals that find M.I.A reaching for those articulate and sharp lyrics. This isn’t M.I.A going out with a bang, but stick with AIM and it does eventually become the deep reaching, last word that does justice to her as an artist. A testament to that fact that the middle ground isn’t the right setting for M.I.A, but once she finds her feet, Mathangi is back riding high.
Image: Rolling Stone