M.I.A. might be joyful but it doesn’t mean she’s lost her critical eye.
As dangerous as it is to be pop’s lone moral policewoman, M.I.A. has largely flourished with her ability to sprinkle some fluff within her antagonistic kool-aid. Since her debut, 2005’s Arular, Mathangi Arulpragasam shows herself to be the rare artist who is at once oppositional and collaborative. Her experience as a Sri Lankan refugee hopscotching from border to border powers her EDM-leaning world music with a devil-may-care disposition breathing fuck-off freedom into every performance. While her previous work suggests that her creative repository is a boiling tea kettle, with screaming critiques of the oppressive violence of Western capitalism, her new album, AIM, is a decisively joyful soufflé ballooning with hopeful optimism.
Given that AIM could very well be her last album, M.I.A.’s pivot from fatalist to cheerleader could be read as her desire to leave a positive lasting impression. An air of finality lingers upon every sonic surface. The lead single, Go Off, meets M.I.A. at the intersection of celebratory and confrontational. A sharp electronic snare serves as the backbone with buoyant Eastern strings emboldening M.I.A.’s self-empowering rap shtick: “Like my name is Neymar and you know I’m not normal/There is no competition/I’m gonna talk and you gonna listen/I’m on ten like men, even better than them.” But her pondering on her own mortality during the bridge — “At least tell your children I came from London/Start talking about me long time like she was random”– signals to the audience that they ought to tell her story with precision and care. M.I.A. wants to be remembered not only for “being hella bomb” but doing what she has to do (in this case retiring) “just to stay strong.” Her wordplay is, at times, heavy-handed. But her intent is always clear. M.I.A. can oscillate from educating to empowering and at her best she weds the two as seamlessly as Diplo and Blaqstarr stitch together her sprawling global sound.
M.I.A. might be joyful but it doesn’t mean she’s lost her critical eye. Borders and Visa are vividly incisive. The latter finds her aggressively harkening back on her previous lessons, “Hiding in my Toyota Corolla/Everybody say ‘Y.A.L.A.!’” and the artist is candid about her unique position in mainstream radio. “Holla, holla, holla, true scholar with a honor/And I’m here to shine the light on the matter.” She playfully calls out to us on Visa and A.M.P. (All My People) compelling us to join her in her particular form of happy banditry. Though the latter was meant to be released back in 2012 on her fourth studio album, Matangi, it fits quite nicely, at least tonally with this album a bit more. A.M.P. is both feminist and utilitarian (two words that don’t often go together, but should). The second verse features, M.I.A. prophesying her own club utopia “fill[ed] strictly full of woman.” Never wanting to be seen as exclusive she finishes up the verse by referencing her mother’s inquiries of men and devil worship, responding with, “I love all men they all take me heaven/I can’t keep myself in check like a Mormon.” The thavil drums of Leo Justi and Skrillex are entrancingly palpable, making for an encouraging communal romp that only M.I.A. can put on. While the album can get a little redundant — the Fly Pirate track is straight up boring — M.I.A. does a pretty good job at manufacturing dynamism in really unique ways.
Never lacking in quips and idiosyncrasies, M.I.A. can easily flip from critique to hilarity to beauty at the drop of a dime. On Bird Song, between squeaks and squalls, M.I.A. manipulates her English accent for double entendre — “Gully like a seagull/I’m coo-coo for you let’s talk [stork].” On the radio-ready single, “Freedum” featuring ZAYN, the latter’s harmonization is flawlessly laid bare amidst some of M.I.A.’s most fastidious bars on the project — making for a bizarre and fun mix of vitality and smarts. But the final song finds the artist at her most naked. On “Survivor,” M.I.A. sings sincere, invoking her experience of forced removal to advise future refugees who may hear this when she’s gone. She reminds us, first, that border disputes and war are often telling of our desires — “G.O.D./Gold and oil and dollars.” She recognizes her mortality once again, “stars come and go/Just like every empire” but in the end, “I stay fly,” and she is still surviving: “Survivor, survivor/Who said it was easy?” The truth is, M.I.A., never tried to make it look so.
As much of a problem as she can be for her PR team, M.I.A. always remained true to her beliefs. And as difficult as it may be to make it in this music game, one that has eaten up and spat out so many women of color, she never compromised. Instead, she laid out the blueprint on how to keep going, to keep growing, how to make it to the end. “It starts,” she says, “when you ready.”