Cycles. Loops. Circles. It may not be the most fitting end point for M.I.A. but “AIM” is an essential album partially due to the situation it represents: an artist beholden to a label, shackled to a contract signed a dozen years ago, and a success for the simple virtue of getting released into the wild at all. This may well be Maya Arulpragasam’s final outing before she quits music (I suspect she will either rely on mixtapes or put out smaller projects on her N.E.E.T Records in conjunction with, for example, G.O.O.D Music). If she does decide to exit the music industry altogether, her five album run will go down as the stuff of legend, with her rebellious reputation reaching the right kids at critical junctures in their future. She was never for everyone, even if she has been “uniting people since 2003” (according to the artwork), and it’s totally understandable why some people may not take to her music or political views. However, there are few artists on the planet that genuinely take risks, break ranks and speak out publicly about social/political injustices. There is a reason Chuck D from Public Enemy anointed her as a worthy successor: because few have ever been as daring. Just go watch the video for the stunning opening track “Borders” (produced by ADP).
On “AIM” she speaks for the outsiders, rapping from their perspective and singing from her own. It’s a frequently self-referential work, as she quotes lyrics from all of her previous albums (even straight up sampling her breakout hit “Galang” on “Visa”). Speaking of visas, she currently can’t get one into the USA – that’s not just about an artist who is signed to an American label (meaning she literally can’t promote “AIM” in person in the States). It’s deeper than rap. Her son has dual-nationality (British/American) so while she can fly across the Atlantic to drop him off to her ex-husband, she’s unable to enter the country, like some bizarre joint-custody version of “The Terminal.” You can’t blame her for being “paranoid” as so many labelled her on her misunderstood 2010 album, “Maya” (which ended up predicting much of the decade thus far with scarily accurate detail). On “AIM” she seems to take solace in closing this Interscope-era chapter of her book, takes on the most prescient political topic right now (immigration) and caps it all off with a few personal confessions.
Saying all that, “AIM” is clearly the least fully-formed album she has ever delivered. Its gestation period was a troubled one (a manager she fired is now apparently the head of the label) so she had to threaten to leak it in order to secure a release. The end result is oft brilliant, occasionally half-baked, and a maddening combination of over/under-edited. The tracklisting makes sense conceptually, but not musically. Some of the lyrics are genial, others a touch on the nose. It’s more a collection of interchangeable songs than we saw on the fluid “Matangi” joint. However, thanks to a Deluxe version with five extra tracks, there genuinely is more than enough material to get a damn fine album out of it – more importantly, one that surpasses expectations (I truly feared for “AIM”). The twelve-track LP clocks in at a slight thirty-nine minutes, with the Deluxe adding an entire quarter of an hour, including at least a couple of tunes which should arguably have replaced some of the main selections. This is a simple one: if you’re buying “AIM” get the Deluxe.
“Borders” works brilliantly as the opening track – a mission statement for “AIM” that questions multiple aspects of modern life, and it’s a theme that gets revisited further on. She speaks for those without a voice, and the video is particularly poignant as immigrants are so frequently dehumanised by the media and government (hey, I’m the offspring of immigrants too). “Go Off” is a massive grower, and it’s possibly the most fully realised song on the album, with Skrillex and Blaqstarr keeping the groove/melody subtle without overproducing. The hilariously bizarre “Bird Song” follows – an entire song of puns about, well, birds. The Blaqstarr-produced version is sparse, infuriatingly catchy and the song does well to mask its true intentions (scratch the surface on almost any M.I.A. song and there are different layers to it). Rochard Scott of the Transatlantic Rebels podcast made the point that “Bird Song” may well pertain to birds being able to fly over borders without any consequences, and this could be interpreted as an immigrant fantasy. Those flights of fancy (see? I can do it too, Maya) end abruptly on “Jump In” which is grounded in reality: a first person narrative of someone jumping into a van and putting their faith in the maker that they will get to cross the border. It’s sparse with only some bass for company, her vocals stuttering and battling with the spaces – another analogy for a human having to compete with land/borders.
The big single hope follows – in my mind, “Freedun” featuring Zayn (yes, the former One Direction member) was a clear album closer. It’s a gorgeous, lilting track to vibe out to and soundtrack a late summer’s evening, and even if M.I.A. was effectively circumvented (it appears the label put Zayn’s vocals on without her full knowledge, and Chris Brown may have been the original choice) it’s a rare example of good external decision-making, as Bradford’s most successful son straight KILLS the chorus/outro. “Refugees learn about patience” is the perfect line: frequently they have to wait for months/years in limbo, and that can be extrapolated to her own situation with the label. It’s a worthy addition to her future “Greatest Hits” collection, and deserves a wonderful video (one is said to be coming soon). “Foreign Friend” is possibly the first misstep of “AIM” – it has many a fine element, including a gut-wrenching chorus courtesy of Dexta Daps and a brilliant concept touching on tokenism (when I was the lone brown person in a group of white people, I was openly referred to as the “token” for years). Yet the song is simply far too long and drags, sapping a touch of steam from what went before. Another weaker moment follows with one of the most out of place M.I.A. songs in her entire catalogue – “Finally” is very du jour, but sounds more like a label concession with her singing over a “tropical” beat. For someone that came up on her own mashups of ragga beats, it’s a jolt to the system, and perhaps I’m being overly harsh but when there are multiple bonus cuts that could have easily replaced it, it’s a touch frustrating.
Perhaps the most vital and energetic trio of songs follows, and our wait for the quintessential Maya classics is rewarded. “A.M.P (All My People)” already appears to be a fan favourite, and (along with “Freedun”) was originally crafted in the “Matangi” sessions. It has crazy energy, and probably represents the pure celebratory joy of an immigrant once they are over the border. Either that, or you’re just supposed to GET DOWN to it. “Ali R U OK?” is one of my favourite songs on “AIM”, as M.I.A. serenades an overworked Uber driver named Ali. Yes, really. It’s great to hear Richard X back on the boards, as he had a major role on “Arular” so the circle continues to complete. The song represents everything great about the Sri Lankan, and if she really is quitting music, then songs like this and the following one are truly bittersweet, as nobody else would even CONCEIVE of them, let alone pull them off. “Visa” is another classic, one that deserves a video, and will make you want to move (and I actually prefer it to the original SoundCloud version, even if Simba got killed off and we lost the outro). She did the same thing on “Bucky Done Gun” and “Boyz” – get some inspiration from Brazil, jack the hell out of it, refine/redefine it and make it her own. In this case, it’s a lift of MC Rene’s “Rebola Bola” but when combined with her border-baiting lyrics, the “Galang” sample and that brutally effective beat, it’s irresistible.
The last couple of songs don’t represent the best ending, with “Fly Pirate” being a potential rowdy street banger that isn’t quite fleshed out enough – it’s too long for a skit, too short for a song and ends up not quite fitting. It doesn’t make enough of the whole Borders/PSG shirt situation either, and even if the beat is kinda wild, it’s a lost opportunity. The last official song is “Survivor” and it is, for me, a bit of a let down. In a similar vein to “Finally”, we find Maya singing a personal song (that could be transferred to immigrants) about how survival is the key. The song is relatively catchy, and maybe one day it will catch me off guard, but for now the production is too basic and her singing too timid. When we reach the Deluxe bonus cuts, these thoughts are amplified as this section truly contains some mesmerising music.
We get a butt-shaking Diplo version of “Bird Song” – a symbolic gesture, seeing as they were a couple for so many years, and publicly squabbled before seemingly reaching a truce (and many seem to prefer this version to the Blaqstarr cut). “The New International Sound Pt. 2” is an authoritative GENER8ION track that turns into an anthem, perfect for the job at hand. “Swords” is the omission that I simply cannot understand – creative, daring, banging, catchy and it already has a wonderful video which flips that “Manali Trance” perfectly. The lyrics even fit the immigration/jump-in-van theme of “AIM” and it should have replaced “Finally”. “Talk” is a hilarious Partysquad track where she takes the mickey over an infectious instrumental, fulfilling its bonus duties with aplomb. Finally, “Platforms” is another track that could easily have been included – the more you hear it, the better it gets. It’s melancholy, hopeful and (for me) could have replaced “Survivor” as it’s far more nuanced.
Forget what could have been. At least “AIM” as it is presented – particularly the Deluxe version – gets the job done. Thank goodness for that. It’s got more than enough quality to satiate her loyal fans, and even if it doesn’t make much of a splash in America, I’m convinced that slowly but surely, it will add fans around the world. It’s not her best album, as there are clearly concessions on display but it doesn’t let her anthology down and she is now free of her label. She had a bad situation to get out of, and she relates it to immigrants trying to make their way out of a less than enviable life by hook or by crook. M.I.A. is an artist in the truest sense of the word. She may ruffle feathers with her “Bird Song” and cross “Swords” with a dozen (count ’em) former managers; she’ll “Go Off” at the authorities when her “Visa” application to cross US “Borders” gets denied; but she’s a “Survivor” who has “Finally” found “Freedun”. She was asked “What’s next?” and replied “Someone hot!” Sometimes, as fans and critics, we forget that artists are human. They have their own complex lives to live, love to seek, careers/family to juggle, and it’s frequently in the public eye. If this really is it for Maya Arulpragasam, then my gosh, we lost a good one.