Miss Fire: M.I.A. (Possibly) Goes Out With a Relative Whimper
M.I.A., insisting that AIM will be her final album, said that she wanted it to be a happy one. It does, on the whole, construct a nice façade. The songs are light, boastful, and optimistic. Some are playful to the point of parody. There's even a reunion with her former collaborator and romantic partner Diplo, for the first time since 2010's Maya, after years of tension, hashed out publicly in interviews and subtweets about Diplo's jealousy over her rapid ascent. But, ultimately, it all seems a bit forced — a smile being held up by clothespins.
AIM is similar, musically, to M.I.A.'s previous albums. She has long relied on sharp production to deliver her message, and this turn is no different. The pairing of relentless drum and bass that has served her so well in the past is present once again here, in songs like "Borders," an album opener that seduces us with melody before attacking with the same quick-twitch percussion that rattles through M.I.A.'s entire catalogue. "Go Off," produced by Skrillex, offers a more structured drumbeat, encased in a snappy and repetitive loop of backing vocals. The artist herself is as she always has been: equal parts singer, rapper, and street preacher. "You can't take me, you want me, pay me/You can't 2Pac me, you can't Biggie me" she spits on the boastful and danceable "A.M.P." On the Auto-Tuned party jam "Freedun," featuring Zayn, she murmurs, "Think of me sort of like Tarzan/And I'm swinging this beat, salvation."
The album's best moments, like those swaggering lines, are reminders that M.I.A.'s greatest appeal is the deftness with which she convinces us of the urgency of her causes: her support for refugees and the displaced, and her strong distaste for government entities chief among them. She has survived as a startling voice, in part, by being able to draw political lines and then redraw them to fit newer, bigger aims — starting in her backyard (her first album, Arular, was named after her father, a Tamil activist) and broadening out from there, an effort that has gotten her into trouble from time to time.
This year, she pushed things a little too far, causing some of her fans to question the scope of her politics and wonder if they were just another part of her performance. In April, she made comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, telling London's Evening Standard, "It's interesting that in America the problem you're allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It's not a new thing to me — it's what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s. Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That's a more interesting question." The point, relayed in willfully provocative style amid ongoing protests against police brutality, wasn't taken well, and M.I.A. was removed from this month's Afropunk London festival, where she had been slated to headline.
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Maybe because of this, parts of AIM feel toothless, less like an artist planting a stake in the ground and more like a high school student running for class president. The aforementioned "Borders" debuted with a brutal and fiercely political self-directed video, in which refugees are seen scaling border fences and forming a boat with their bodies. It's visually stunning, a vivid and compassionate look at the world's refugee crisis; it's also a political stance that M.I.A., a former refugee herself, navigates with ease, a comfort level that's reflected in the music. But in other places, she falters. An unpleasantly fluffy subsequent track, in which M.I.A. stutters a repetitive and meaningless chorus of "Jump in/ Jump in," counteracts the powerful preceding sermon, as though she's trying to serve a spoonful of honey when everyone came for the hard medicine. All the misses on the album glare in the same way: "Bird Song," for instance, feels like a joke, the lyrics a series of bird puns ("I'm robin this joint" and "Don't swallow that, I make the culture") backed by a kazoo.
This confusing terrain gets particularly frustrating when a bright spot appears to remind you of M.I.A.'s immense talents. "Finally," a brilliant dancehall ode right at the album's center, is a bright-tempo'd, joyful island surrounded by lesser, more contrived songs: the dry "Ali R U OK?" and "Visa," which sounds like a B side from M.I.A.'s past. Toward the end, it picks up again. "Talk" is brief, scathing, and sees M.I.A. return to what she does best: taking singular aim at an issue and delivering a compact message meant for the masses, as in the shouted line, "This system has to come with way better shit than racism." "Platforms," which isn't new (it was previewed last spring), also stands out; recontextualized, it's the perfect album ender. Frisky and reflective, it does most of its work in the chorus: "Guns keep it fun, keeping men on the run/Those who love heat, yeah, here comes the sun."
If AIM does wind up being the album with which we bid farewell to M.I.A.'s musical career, it will certainly not go down as her finest work. This doesn't discount the fact that she has already given so much — a catalogue that has shown her unafraid to risk it all, even her own reputation and politics — to make music she believed in. But AIM is disappointing for the risks it didn't take, the ones it drew near to and then, self-consciously, backed away from. Perhaps this was the only way that M.I.A. could make a happy album; for a lifelong fighter, bliss is hard to find without some willful ignorance.
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