Album Review: M.I.A. - AIM

Album Reviews
09/15/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

Back in July, Annie Mac interviewed M.I.A. to announce the official release date for delayed fifth album AIM (formerly called Matahdatah). With the announcement, Maya gave us the bass-heavy single "Go Off" to mask the pain of some bummer news: this is going to be the last M.I.A. album before she goes on hiatus. Just like the album art says, Maya Arulpragasam has been uniting people since 2003, channeling the revolutionary yet radio-ready mantra bands like Public Enemy have championed. And much like Public Enemy in their present day, Maya sees the work to be an all-too-often thankless effort. After the critical and commercial success of Kala (with "Paper Planes" at the helm), it's been one complaint after another despite unquestionable artistic excellence. 2010's Maya upped the noise factor with samples from Suicide and Sleigh Bells, but its technophobic prophecies and takedown of institutional prejudice were seen as too paranoid for the time (spoiler: pretty much all her predictions came true). Maya won fans back with the excellent single "Bad Girls", which saw an official video release in 2012, but a largely publicized law suit by the NFL due to her Super Bowl middle finger put fantastic fourth album Matangi in limbo until the end of 2013. M.I.A. returned with the controversial "Borders" video, where refugees pepper each scene like decorations rather than human beings with faces and families. In a perfect world, where label bigwigs had the propensity to grasp the media criticism that the video beheld, it would have made for an excellent, uncompromising lead up to Matahdatah. But alas, delays paired requests to "fight [her] own battle" and tone down the political message. Months later, here we are with AIM in hand, ready for a listen through Maya's last album before taking some well deserved time off. Despite the countless roadblocks and daily frustrations, with AIM, Maya chooses the high road and gives us a positive and headstrong exit. "Who said it was easy?" she sings on "Survivor" - certainly not anyone who wants to see real and lasting change.

The songs of AIM alternate between loud and quiet, shining bright dichotomy on themes of social unification versus self-love. One thing that Maya really nails in terms of our post-Internet social justice culture: much power and passion are lost when the group disbands. Thus, Maya sets a wonderful example with the opening pair, first calling people together to break borders, but then to also remember who you are and what you stand for when you have to go off on your own. The next two tracks offer a more drastic comparison. First, "Bird Song" makes incredibly fun use of wordplay to call people together into flocks willing to fly against the grain (it's so fun, in fact, that there are two versions of the song present on the deluxe album, alternating productions by Blaqstarr and Diplo). But for the personal turn, Maya strips the production down to bare bones for a claustrophobic, dark first person narrative, where she takes on the role of the border-hopping immigrant ready to make dreams happen. It's a somber, silencing number that finds odd placement between tongue-in-cheek "Bird Song" and bright Zayn Malik feature "Freedun". But maybe Maya wants us to see the juxtaposition. Maybe here on her last album, she's showing us here once more that you can't separate her summery world pop sound from her message - they are both a part of her artistry.

It's this pattern that Maya follows throughout the rest of the record, making sure that each shade of her vision of 2015-2016 politics and the corresponding media coverage go hand in hand with the party tracks. "Foreign Friend" tells a refugee-themed love story to "make that shit trend" and get use media click-baiting tactics for good rather than profit. Maya straightens out her haters on "Finally" before uniting the masses once again on the Skrillex-produced anthem "A.M.P. (All My People)". "Ali R U Ok?" takes the first person perspective again like "Jump In", this time making sure that priorities and dreams stay in focused of busy immigrant lives. "Ali, I haven't seen you since we left Calais, you've been so busy", Maya sings, "I'm just shaking what I'm making, sending bread and bacon home so they can fix what's broken". These numbers like "Jump In", "Ali", and "Foreign Friend" see Maya embodying this type of narrative for the first time in a while. On Kala with tracks like "Jimmy", "Hussel", and "Mango Pickle Down River", as well as some Arular numbers like "10 Dollar" and "Hombre", she's bonded with foreign friends with dramatic license to make the worlds outside the western one seem real and tangible. It's the message of the "Borders" video expanded and made real in our lives. Do we want to let these people be click-bait blips on a screen, or do we want to use our western privilege to benefit their lives? As Maya shows us again and again, it's not someone else's battle.

"Fly Pirate" makes a nod to Maya's mixtape debut with a snappy 808 interlude before the album's closing number "Survivor". Here, M.I.A. gives us the brightest, most ethereal track she's given us since Maya closer "Space". Then, M.I.A. was harking gravity as the enemy, floating up above the rest of us finding a place outside the noisy, technologically overcrowded world. But here, she finds home and solidarity wherever she goes, thanks to the knowledge that she is fighting the good fight. With AIM, she takes sight of a dream above and beyond herself. It's an aim that takes patience and dedication, but it's not an impossible one. Towards the end of "Bird Song", after making about twenty-five combined bird puns, similes, and metaphors, she stops, as if exhausted. "I need more birds", she cries. If "Bird Song" is a call to the flock, then Maya's simple sentence is the kicker. She needs more people willing to take aim and fly. In her time of hiatus, we can only hope that Maya can inspire others to pick up the torch and carry it forward. Plus, if they can make it even half as voracious or engaging as Maya has done these thirteen years, then the torch will be in good hands.

AIM is out now. Grab it at your local record store on CD and get five bonus tracks, including the Diplo version of "Bird Song". M.I.A. has no current plans for a supporting tour, but check her Facebook for emerging details.

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