THIS WHOLE REVIEW, no matter how mercilessly I bash M.I.A.’s disjointed mess of an album, operates under the knowledge that I will forever view her as one of the most badass and exciting musicians of all time. That’s a given. It’s also what makes hating “AIM,” her fifth full-length LP, all the more saddening.
When M.I.A. released her debut LP “Arular” in 2005, the most unanimously praised aspect of the record was how seamlessly she fused together different styles and influences. It wasn’t hard to trace that musical lineage: “[I] listened to hip-hop and dancehall as a kid,” she explained, and from there was drawn into the worlds of punk, britpop, and electro thrash. Her synthesization of these genres and more led to “Arular,” as well as 2007’s “Kala,” being singular and cohesive pieces of political hip-hop that you couldn’t help but dance to. Nine years and two albums later, M.I.A. has returned to us with her fifth record “AIM.” Part of me wishes she hadn’t.
Upon first hearing the record’s opening track “Borders,” it becomes clear that M.I.A. is as interested as ever in incorporating a diverse musical palette into her work. The beat, which is undeniably one of the most banging she’s ever worked with, blends trap hi-hats with an eerily distorted vocal sample. Although this isn’t one of the two songs on “AIM” that were produced by Skrillex — the godfather of brostep — it might as well have been. And though I can diss him as easily as he can entertain a crowd of molly-fueled rave tweens at Electric Daisy Carnival, Skrillex is largely responsible for the album’s best cut, “Go Off.” With its unique percussive touches and infectious yet subtle melody, the beat feels like an expected, if not welcome, progression from the sounds she was working with on 2013’s underrated “Matangi.”
The other reason why “Go Off” is the standout track on this record is that M.I.A. herself is as on-point as ever both lyrically and in delivery. Nowhere else on “AIM” (with the possible exception of “Visa,” the other album highlight) does M.I.A. sound as urgent and fiery as she does on that track. This is perhaps best summarized in the song’s first verse: “There is no competition/ I’m gonna talk and you gonna listen.” For those three minutes, a glimmer of the M.I.A. I’ve known and loved shines through the dull, jumbled muck that constitutes the rest of “AIM.”
There are nine songs on this album that I haven’t yet mentioned, and that’s no accident. The vast majority of this LP is a forgettable stew of half-realized visions, lackluster vocal performance, and disjointed transitions. Even on “Borders,” which sits among the best tracks of the album, it’s hard to take M.I.A. seriously when the refrain of the song is, “What’s up with that?” It turns a powerful song that calls out very real problems in the world (white privilege, police brutality, immigration policies) into one that calls to mind Kenan Thompson in his classic SNL skit. What’s more, that’s not even the most groan-inducing moment on “AIM.”
“Borders” and “Go Off” serve as a promising start to the record, an accomplishment that is quickly forgotten about thanks to “Bird Song.” M.I.A manages to fuse the dramatism of a spaghetti western soundtrack with a cacophony of migraine-inducing “bird” sounds, which — surprisingly — results in an all but unlistenable experiment. Although the rest of the record is less jarring, the monotonous drivel of most tracks almost makes me long for those shrill chirps. Lowlights include: unneeded features from ZAYN and Dexta Daps, entirely forgettable tracks like “Jump In” and “Ali r u ok?,” and future medical commercial soundtrack “Survivor.” To her credit, “Survivor” serves as a fitting outro to the album; I made it through, but just barely.
I knew this album wasn’t going to sit well with me when, after first listen, I thought about my love for the song “Visa.” Upon pressing myself for the reason as to why I felt it a step above the rest of the tracks, I quickly realized why: it reminds me the most of old M.I.A.. What I wanted was an album that wouldn’t make me miss the old M.I.A., but one that would force me to embrace the new one. And “AIM” does just the opposite.