by NICK BUCHANAN
M.I.A.'s coming back with power, power one last time.
Well, kind of.
As an artist whose biggest waves in the United States have come from the flash of a middle finger at a broadcast football game and a radio hit that is one giant side-eye at American government and stereotypes, M.I.A. certainly has been known to be bold at best and abrasive at worst in the largest music market in the world. The controversy and ironic radio success aside, though, her creative output traditionally has been a respectable challenge the eyes, ears, and brain. While she carries herself with a cool, collected swagger vocally, she's always been one for aggressive mission statements through every other facet of her work: her album cover arts, avant-garde; her production choices, nonconformist; her lyrics, forward-thinking and politically charged.
All of this in mind, her fifth (and reportedly final) record could be assumed to be her strongest, most resounding statement yet, even in comparison to her first two records, both of which spit a few rounds of controversial bullets through the fabric of American ideology. In hindsight, a certain age-old adage about assumptions comes to mind here.
Why? Because M.I.A. is ready to make peace.
Although it opens with last year's confrontational "Borders," AIM is a relaxed affair at heart: she admits that she's immune to criticism on "Finally" and brings closure to her departure from the industry with the likes of "Bird Song" and "Go Off." Her minimized political agenda still focuses on illegal immigration ("Visa," "Borders," "Survivor"), but this record feels much more like a personal outlet than an outspoken editorial. At points, that becomes blatant as she transfers to light conversation: on "Foreign Friend," she embraces a companion who was always there to watch Breaking Bad with her and console her in the wake of break-ups. Perhaps even more out of character of her, "Ali R U OK?" is an entire track devoted to an overworked Uber driver. A far stretch from the racial discrimination, modern politics, and wars she usually tackles, eh?
For an artist who has her sights on the end of a career after a decade of bringing light to global problems through club speakers, I suppose it's a natural trajectory to end with an afterglow for having done her part in respective social movements; it's just a very abrupt change for M.I.A. to end her statements in periods rather than boldface exclamation points, especially at a time when the political battlegrounds on immigration and foreign policy are hotter than even.
A less controversial M.I.A. record does not, however, make for a less entertaining one. If her last release taught us one thing, it's that she knows the ins and outs of today's club music better than most, so it's no surprise that the worlds of electronic and worldbeat collide on the disjointed madhouses of Skrillex co-signed tracks "A.M.P. (All My People)" and "Go Off," offering strong competition to the best cuts from Matangi. Additionally, in traditional M.I.A. fashion, she delivers some tracks that make listeners question whether they're unorthodox or obnoxious: most notably, both versions of "Bird Song" are backed by a forest of kazoos and bird noises (à la Kala's "Bird Flu") and constant hits of a sneering vocal ad-lib run across the ode to the Uber driver, "Ali R U OK?" (As is the case for most of her work, obnoxiousness is ruled out after a few concentrated listens to the tracks.)
Never did any of us predict M.I.A. would collaborate with someone like Zayn Malik ("Freedun" is an interesting little ditty that juxtaposes heavy drums with airy howls from Malik, by the way) or release an album as nonbelligerent as AIM, but the day has come, my friends. For better or for worse, streamlined, modernized production techniques and some unfocused lyrical concepts have rendered this the most accessible record of her back catalog. There's no doubt that sharp tongue of hers has been dulled over the years, but her abilities in the craft of party tracks have aged liked fine wine – and that queen of the club sensibility is why this record ultimately swims rather than sinks. (★★★★ out of five)
AIM is out now under Interscope Records.
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