After threatening to leak AIM, M.I.A., or Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam, finally let the world in on her latest release as she usually does with any work she’s produced since her debut: on her terms. An experimental hip-hop artist whose music has traces of electronic, world and dance music, M.I.A.’s identity as the artist who is politically incorrect and the outsider who refuses to be labeled as mainstream hip-hop is cemented with AIM. Politically charged and a statement in its conception and execution, M.I.A. will forever remain the artist whose work never aimed to be mainstream.
Still bearing the scars of the Sri Lankan Civil war and drawing comparisons to its results with the occurrences that happened at the release of the lead single Borders, M.I.A.’s indie yet radio friendly rap track opens AIM. Her life as a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee is well documented and as with most of her earlier work forms the crux of this album too. There’s a unique South Asian twang to the bars as they’re mouthed to the music that questions borders today’s people have erected amongst themselves. It questions our insular attitude and then for some context brings in Syria’s asylum seekers, police brutality, same sex marriage, personal beliefs and history and made for some contemporary commentary from the music industry after Beyonce’s Formation did that across the pond.
On Go Off, a Blaqstarr and Skrillex production, there’s a unique mix of reggae and EDM making for one of the most interesting tracks on the album. Blaqstarr continues his production on the spacy, campy, experimental Bird Song. M.I.A. brings in the Indian influence interpolating the song with a Tamil song from the 80s, something she usually does in reference to her South Asian heritage. Now M.I.A.’s lyrics aren’t the best, she’s no wordsmith and that’s obvious on some of the tracks. Take, for example, Jump In. It’s terribly simple, repetitive and sounds like a B-side to the popular Borders. There’s some acapella there but auto tune killed the radio star and Jump In eerily reminds you that although M.I.A. is ambitious she can fall flat sometimes.
Now from one South Asian to another, M.I.A links up with Zayn of One Direction fame to present Freedun, Think, M.I.A.’s rap verses, quasi sung refrains and Zayn’s breathy choruses mixed in with global music and there’s Freedun. Usually reserved for international stars like A.R. Rahman, Anoushka Shankar and the likes, M.I.A.’s track with Zayn deserves praise for preserving the South Asian authenticity of the music yet appealing to the contemporary ear with such ease.
There’s Jamaican reggae on Foreign Friend and while the track isn’t much to write about, the themes are the same: migrants, refuge, success and solidarity packaged with vocals from Dexta Daps. Just when you think M.I.A. is fizzling out, Finally jumps out to you with its reggae beat that is so much better than Foreign Friend. There’s classic M.I.A., reminiscent of her earlier work on Arular and Maya. Again, the lyrics aren’t the best. The rhymes seem written on short notice, but the delivery makes it an absolute standout. The reggae beat is milked out to feature some stellar vocals and adds some lightness to the album, although the message is laid on thick.
Dancehall and South Asian drums are married by Leo Justi and Skrillex to resurrect a track meant for her earlier album Matangi. A.M.P. (All My People) is a club banger and creates doubt if M.I.A. is seriously jumping off the grid post AIM. The best for some reason is packaged in the middle and to the average listener skipping to this set of tracks is probably what is best advised.
Refugees and their plight stage a comeback on Ali R U OK? With its Middle Eastern influence, the track discusses an overworked Uber driver and if that wasn’t enough, Visa, takes the discussion to the borders of Mexico. There’s references to her entire discography all through the song and makes for some interesting wordplay – the first I’ve seen on the album.
Autotuned acapella returns on Fly Pirates and the theme is the same as is the closer on the album, Survivor: refugees. The theme is fleshed out on the album and while most track refer to the hardships one faces after the move, Survivor has a hopeful note to the album.
There’s Diplo’s remix of Bird Song on the deluxe version, that retains the South Asian influence on the track and plays up M.I.A.’s voice adding some weight to the album that can seem lackadaisical at times. GENER8ION’s original receives M.I.A.’s treatment on The New International Sound, Pt. 2 under the production of the original artist. Comparing the same to its original, the track shows that with the right producer M.I.A. still has a lot to offer. Swords, Talk and Platforms are M.I.A.’s politically fueled tracks that refer to the sounds of the temples of South India, engagement in talks on peace and power to the people.
While M.I.A.’s work on AIM is fueled by her personal experience as a refugee and her activism for the cause is laudable, the album does seem rushed with most tracks only making it under the 3-minute mark. The lyrics are lazy, the themes repetitive, but does show hints of the genius that the rapper will be missed for if she’s made up her mind on leaving the music scene. Sure, we need music that has the feel good effect, M.I.A. has always dared to break the mold of what a music on the experimental music scene can do. Music needs diversity, a message and a much needed redefinition and artists like M.I.A. can bring that to music lovers for years. A few lazy tracks do not mean that the album is bad, but if you’re into M.I.A. check out Borders, Survivor, Bird Song, Freedun or Jump In and get lost in M.I.A.’s world.
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