Given her outspoken activism and raw artistic approach, it would be difficult to imagine Mathangi Arulpragasam (AKA M.I.A.) having the success and international renown she’s steadily been acquiring since 2005 in any genre other than hip hop. If, as M.I.A. has suggested, her fifth studio album, AIM, is to be her last, it’s a curious note to end on. Featuring collaborations with Skrillex, Blaqstarr, Zayn Malik, and perhaps most surprisingly, former boyfriend Diplo among others, AIM is a mix of dancefloor-ready club bangers, nearly-mainstream pop, and the occasional abstract oddity.
AIM features more than a couple tracks that rival M.I.A.’s best work. Examples presented at the album’s outset include the one-two punch of “Borders” and “Go Off” which manage to kick things off splendidly. With lyrics about the shallowness/selfishness of social media culture in conjunction with a crisp trap beat and a Middle Eastern-sounding sample, “Borders” boldly takes to task terms like: breaking [the] internet, being bae, and killing it. “Go Off”, a track produced by Skrillex and Blaqstarr, utilizes a similar musical foundation and finds M.I.A. boast-rapping about her focus and higher level of consciousness the way other rappers might brag about their material wealth and sexual prowess. And with its ultra-infectious beats and synths, in addition to a soaring chorus gorgeously sung by ex-One Direction falsetto Zayn Malik, “Freedun” may be M.I.A.’s best shot at replicating the mainstream success of 2007’s “Paper Planes”.
The aforementioned successful moments aside, AIM is not without its challenges. While time has since vindicated M.I.A.’s 2010 record Maya, an album that was initially largely considered mediocre by critics and listeners alike but has since realized its value within the context of the rapper’s discography, time may not be as kind to some of the tracks on her latest effort. The trippy “Jump In” comes across as an odd experiment, creating tension that never gets released by layering M.I.A.’s echoed, chopped up vocals over a beat that’s barely existent. In addition, the lyrics and overly optimistic message of “Foreign Friend” feels simplistic and trite and creates a stark dichotomy when paired with the song’s paranoid melody. Lastly, the experimental tension created with “Jump In” returns in the album’s final third with the monotonous and repetitive “Ali R U Ok?”
A significant part of the enjoyment and excitement created by the anticipation of any new work by an artist like M.I.A. lies in the brave sociopolitical thoughts and creative risks she takes and conveys on each subsequent release. Throughout her decade-plus-long career as a musician, M.I.A. has introduced the world to otherwise unknown artists, sounds, and ideas. While AIM may not be considered as groundbreaking as her first two records, in 2016 M.I.A. proves she’s still an innovative force to be reckoned with.