Since the release of her debut album Arular in 2005, Mathangi Arulpragasam, known by her stage name M.I.A, has established herself as one of the music industry’s most intriguing and colour characters. The rapper has become infamous for her cut-throat political and racial activism, while her social commentary has been the source of much controversy and discussion. Such politicking is widely discussed in her lyrics, and the undisputable intensity of her passion is perfectly personified in her musical discography, which regularly combines elements of electronica, dance, hip-hop and world music, and blends Eastern and Western musical influences. Her fifth, and supposedly final studio album, AIM, is no exception to the M.I.A formula, accurately echoing the rapper’s signature global pop aesthetic. Less chaotic than the admirably unconventional Matangi, the record is more reflective of the crowd-pleasing sound of her 2008 summer-smash, ‘Paper Planes’.
Several tracks on AIM offer poignant slices of social commentary on the themes we’ve come to expect from the English rapper, including money, refugees and border control, police and social media. The record’s mid-tempo, lead single, ‘Borders’ and the Bollywood-tinged ‘Visa’ deliver rousing discussions on the UK’s handling of the refugee crisis, while ‘Platforms’ and ‘Talk’ examine the various meanings of value in different cultures and global societies’ superficial obsession with current affairs, “Ebola scare or a bomb scare, it’s the same shit just hit and share”. Unlike M.I.A’s previous efforts, however, AIM feels notably less confrontational in the delivery of its message. The rapper regularly delves into the many tribulations of modern society, but in a notably passive, almost punctilious manner that is surprisingly optimistic and much more universally accessible to listeners.
Throughout AIM it becomes increasingly apparent that this time around, the rapper is significantly more invested in ensuring the record sounds sonically satisfying than challenging societal conventions. The wonderfully peculiar ‘Swords’ incorporates the sound of clashing blades as percussion, whilst ‘Foreign Friend’ is a woozy, sweet track that was recorded during the rapper’s time in Jamaica. Skrillex-produced ‘Go Off’ is electronic music at its most thrilling and features a metallic, pulsating beat. The playful nature of the record is perhaps best exemplified by ‘Freedun’, a surprising collaboration with ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik. The laid-back track has an infectiously sticky rhythm, over which M.I.A declares herself an ambassador of “Swaggerstan”
Whilst such deliveries such as these keep the record light, they feel often feel artificial, resulting in several moments in where the album become a little derailed. The Diplo-produced ‘Birdsong’, in which the rapper works a list of bird names into a series of popular culture references, “I believe like R. Kelly we can fly, but toucan fly together”, feels forced and uninspired, and attempts to empathise with listeners on the individual level, such as in ‘Ali R U OK’, a bhangra-pop jam inspired by a ride with an overworked Uber driver, are often contrived and distract from the focus of the record. As a result of this, much of the albums’ fearless ambition feels fragmented, resulting in an integral lack in cohesion between its themes.
AIM is far from the rapper’s best album, but it is without a doubt one of her most joyful, distinctive and crowd-friendly offerings to date; a witty parting gift of softcore propaganda that demonstrates she is a truly unique artist. It’s a record that readily explores the topics many other artists would never dare speak of, in an undeniably charming fashion only M.I.A could pull off, even if the quality of its message is frustratingly inconsistent.By Liam Smith