In July, Mathangi Arulpragasam hit BBC Radio 1 to announce that her next album as M.I.A. may be her last. Swallowing that information is hard. If nothing else, M.I.A. spends her life in motion, and an end to her musical career would contradict that. She was born in London, raised in Sri Lanka, and tours everywhere in between. No matter which album is under the microscope, her music channels a constant state of movement, representing various location-based musical styles and cultural topics. But AIM extends this pulse into deeper political territory than usual without the consistency needed to make this a hard-hitting political record with 20/20 vision. It’s a record detailing the need to move and the need for others to make way, but as her last musical statement? We’re left yearning for something bolder.
It’s fitting that AIM starts with “Borders”. Released at the tail end of last year, the single is the album’s most hyper-political track, all the more aided by its controversial video. “Guns blow doors to the system/ Yeah fuck ‘em when we say we’re not with them/ We solid and we don’t need to kick them/ This is North, South, East, and Western,” she sings in the song’s chorus. It’s an anthem of rebuttal and unity, sentiments she revisits in “Visa” and “Jump In”. With that track on the front lines, AIM establishes itself as about the people and for the people, with M.I.A. steering a radio pop audience towards the intricate rapped verses of someone with plenty to say. And for most of the record, Arulpragasam has plenty to say, be it about power positions (“Go Off”) or lighting the city up (“A.M.P. (All My People)”), both of which she addresses with Skrillex at her side.
Everything’s seemingly connected by level-headed if slightly kooky production, which differentiates AIM from previous albums like 2010’s noise-laden /\/\/\Y/\ or the saturated samples of 2007’s Kala. This is a return to divisiveness, to the craving of absurdities and contradictions that separates M.I.A. from the rest of the bunch. From the hyper-polished production of “Survivor” to the woven splices of “Jump In”, Arulpragasam fills the listener’s head with a dizzying assortment of sounds that should, when heard properly, act as a sedative to the shrill noise of today’s political climate. Digital bubbles pop like PC Music in “Fly Pirate” over an impossibly deep bass, swirling together in a sugary, sour mix. The Blaqstarr-produced version of “Bird Song” runs syncopated percussion taps in the background while what should be annoying kazoo hums and coos, in a classic M.I.A. way, turn hypnotic instead. Even “Freedun” stands out, not for the liquid vocals of ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik, but for the meticulous loops, a layer of underwater percussion, and Auto-Tuned backing vocals that coagulate with ringing bells.
More often than not, Arulpragasam pushes her vocals to the front of the mix, allowing her lyrics to take the lead. As “Ali r u ok?” spins its web of Indian instrumentation, she spouts off about income pressures, romantic desires, and how devotion to work impacts relationships. “All your best days are given to your boss way/ Tell ’em you’re working on us today,” she sings. “I’m thinking generation/ ‘Cause it’s my obligation.” Not only is she sticking up for herself, but she’s fighting for the rights of those around her, almost all of whom are too swallowed up in dark spirals to realize how the negative sides of life are clawing away at what makes them human.
(Interview: M.I.A. on Identity, Politics, and Being Understood)
Therein lies the problem, though. With the instrumentals turned down low, Arulpragasam sets herself up to be graded on the meat of her words, and much of AIM repeats itself without varied language or, even worse, without a clear villain to rail against — for example, “Finally what haters say about me don’t worry me/ I keep it moving forward to what’s ahead of me”; “Don’t bring your gun there/ Don’t bother, bother me/ You want me, pay me”; or “I don’t need the clicks on the chicks/ That sell me the bullshit/ Like this is where the cool’s at.” Even the album’s closing track shies away from lyrical substance — “Trying not to remember/ My time in the fire/ ‘Cause I ain’t gonna tell ya/ This war is ever over” — in favor of promoting a hopeful look at bravery through the will to not give up.
M.I.A.’s wishy-washy lyrics aren’t a result of having nothing to say. During our recent interview, she spoke candidly about where she stands in the world at large and articulated her personal struggles as a musician and a young mother. “I’ve always been a testing ground for how society works, mobilizing fear, or hate, or ignorance,” she said. “[My son] is all these extremes — but he hasn’t dealt with them yet. All of the things that I got to experience, he is actually the embodiment of it, because genetically he is all of these extremes, whereas I am not … That’s why I think this album is about unity, and it’s about saying, ‘OK, all these people can co-exist.'”
Yet for all of her talk about unity, AIM lacks cohesion. It sounds like the weight of the world’s issues and her desire to properly articulate, clarify, and fight for them have boiled specific moments down to large generalizations, which is unfortunate because she clearly has heavy topics on her mind. “These immigrants and refugees are a faceless concept used to make people scared. And we’re having huge political changes in the West based on it,” she explained in our interview. “There’s a massive shakedown going on, and people’s lives are changing based on this word, refugee and immigrant. It’s like basically District 9, but we’re the aliens. And I feel like I wouldn’t really talk about it if it wasn’t having a major effect on both sides of my life.” There’s a focus on current realities, both ones she’s experienced personally and ones she, like most of us, witnesses on the news. The overarching themes related to the refugee crisis and immigrant struggles are narrated throughout AIM in a way that plays like a fractured dream, one that’s hard to remember when you wake up.
Thankfully, the softer, less abrasive style in which she’s chosen to address these topics makes AIM an enjoyable listen from start to finish, but the album lacks the bold blows that have become M.I.A.’s trademark. This has, in turn, weakened her messages’ ability to stick. At times, it even results in lulls like “Finally”, an enjoyable song, but one mysteriously lacking any real hook. Other times, the culprit lies in the overworked drabble of songs like “Foreign Friend”, in which each verse drags while name-dropping Breaking Bad and Forrest Gump for the sake of comparing cultures. The song is saved by Dexta Daps’ hearty chorus, as well as by its valid commentary on Westernization and how good intentions never compensate for institutionalized racism.
The tracks that do sink aren’t from a lack of effort on her part; it’s simply a communication breakdown. She struggles to communicate her vision in a way that makes itself understandable to those who haven’t lived where she’s lived, haven’t seen what she’s seen, or aren’t even aware of the topic she’s discussing. By no means does Arulpragasam owe us a classroom lesson. “Borders” is a great example of tangible political activism that isn’t too transparent or expositional, but when other tracks meander in obscurity, M.I.A. leaves her listeners feeling confused and cold.
If this is M.I.A.’s last album, then there’s reason to be upset. Not only would she be leaving a world of music that benefits from what she contributes, but she’d also be leaving with a less than rousing sendoff. Traditionally, M.I.A. peaks when she melts her musical influences, but on AIM, there’s this lingering feeling that too many of the songs were left half-baked. As such, the album feels less like a farewell and more like a preview for her next reinvention, a midday snack before the full-course government takedown. At this point, there are two outcomes we can hope for: AIM expands over time, its muddled messages becoming clearer after repeat listens. Or, better yet, Arulpragasam decides to stick around to make good on the classic album that AIM seems to predicate. If we’re lucky, both will come true, but only M.I.A. can make it happen.
Essential Tracks: “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix)”, “Borders”, and “Ali r u ok?“