There’s something a bit too perfect about M.I.A.’s pattern of releasing new music. Every three years this decade, she’s put out a new album months before or after the latest Kanye West album. Each of them have put out a winner each time, full of progressive new musical and lyrical ideas. And yet, while West has been celebrated and praised for his advancement, M.I.A. has been mostly dismissed. Of the three studio albums she’s released since 2010, only 2013’s Matangi managed to get over a 70 on Metacritic, and even that received average scores from publications as major as AllMusic and Pitchfork.
So when she said that her new album AIM would be her last, it was hard to blame her. Wouldn’t you want to stop releasing albums if you made something as mindblowing as Maya only for it to be torn apart by critics who just wanted you to record Kala again?
Because of this, it hurts to say that AIM is likely her weakest record. Like all of her albums, there are more ideas stuffed into each song than many performers manage to fit into whole albums, and most of the ideas work. Overall, this is a highly enjoyable, thought-provoking collection of songs. But while the ideas on her previous albums have all flowed beautifully, here it’s a bit messier, beginning with the opening five songs (i.e., most of the highlights). From the heavy production on “Go Off” and “Bird Song” to the minimalist “Jump In,” these are all wonderful on their own, but together, they never seem to come together. This could be due to sequencing, or maybe the pieces wouldn’t fit together in any order. Either way, the album doesn’t flow the way the four albums that preceded it did.
If the weirdest and most alluring sounds on AIM come from M.I.A.’s frequent producers Diplo and DJ Blaqstarr (each returning after an absence on Matangi), then Polow da Don offers up the most conventional with the Zayn Malik collaboration “Freedun,” the album’s equivalent to “Paper Planes” or “Bad Girls” (although it doesn’t quite live up to those examples). From the opening line (“I’m a swagger man/Rolling in my swagger van/From the People’s Republic Of Swaggerstan”), it’s among the purest and most irresistible pop M.I.A. has ever done.
The more sonically focused second half of the album manages to be both less tuneful and more consistent. This trade-off still makes for a solid conclusion, but it also makes me wonder if resequencing some tracks could have made the album work better in both tune and consistency. In particular, the two most worldbeat-centered productions, “Ali R U OK?” and “Visa,” are placed right next to each other, and they make a less significant an impact because of this.
Lyrically, M.I.A. has claimed that this is her most positive album because she wanted to go out on a happy note. Indeed, songs like “Go Off” and “Foreign Friend” are pretty upbeat. But I don’t necessarily agree with her claim that there are no complaints on AIM. Explicitly, maybe that’s correct, but the album’s major theme of the literal and metaphorical borders human beings build around themselves at least carries some semblance of protest. The refrain of “What’s up with that?” on opening cut “Borders” has a lot of weight, and if it’s not a complaint, it’s at the very least meant to question our obsession with division. What is up with that?
Considering that I’ve loved all of M.I.A.’s albums, I hope this isn’t the last one, and I expect that it won’t be. But even if it is, the gorgeous closing cut “Survivor” wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on, particularly the lyric, “Men are good, men are bad/And the war is never over.” What a way to sum up a career. What a way to sum up our world.