AIM is supposedly M.I.A’s last long player, and true to form she is refusing to go quietly. No stranger to controversy – she famously replaced the “shit” lyric in Give Me All Your Luvin with a middle finger to camera in the 2012 Super Bowl Halftime Show thus landing herself a $15.1 lawsuit from the NFL – the release of AIM has been a contentious one. Mathangi Arulpragasam was unceremoniously dropped from the inaugural Afropunk’s heading slot for comments she made regarding the Black Lives Matter movement that she claimed failed to acknowledge the plight of Syrians. Despite widespread criticisms of her comments she remained defiant tweeting, “Told to stay in my lane. There is no lane for 65mil refugees who’s (sic) lanes are blown up!”
In light of her stance it is no surprise that her latest record’s primary concern is to explore borders and division in characteristically divisive fashion. The aptly titled Borders opens the album and she dives straight in by attacking platitudes: “Being bae (What’s up with that?)/Making money (What’s up with that?)/Breaking internet (What’s up with that?)/Love wins (What’s up with that?)/Living it (What’s up with that?)/Being real (What’s up with that?).” She effectively highlights the meaningless of the language we use to define and divide. It’s a convincing dissection, but the problem is she doesn’t always have anything more consistent and clear to replace those vapid mottos with.
For example Bird Song explores immigration and migration through a metaphor that is heavy-handed and tawdry. She raps “Migrate for the summer/Duck out for some hot weather/Birds of prey and I’m shaking off my feather/I believe like R Kelly, we can fly/But toucan fly together,” and it is on a level with the hackneyed phrases she assails on Borders.
Elsewhere her lyrics are far more effective. The chorus of Foreign Friend offers: “Gonna be your best friend/Gonna make that shit trend/I’m gonna be your foreign friend all the way to the end,” exposing a gulf created within integration. Like many of the tracks on the album it consistently highlights divides – even the more subtle and insidious ones.
Musically, it’s pretty much business as usual for M.I.A. Ali R U OK is a wake-up call to overworked drones to take a break from chasing the dream, the cash and other unattainable facets of capitalism. Its hypnotic and infectious beats ape repetitive industrial rhythms to hammer the point home. Visa is the most musically fun track complete with a satisfyingly playful rap, and A.M.P (All My People) is fitted out with classic M.I.A rhythms that have been a calling card for her and remain so on this record. It also features her oft used combative style, as she raps, “Hey wanna stop me/Galliano sack me/I’ll keep on coming back/Like your freaking acne.” And it’s moments like this that her defiance is still exhilarating; more than that it’s vital, as we need artists that square up to established schools of thought, and in this sense she still opens up dialogue like no other.
It’s often a perplexing dialogue, however, both thematically and musically. The Zayn-featuring Freedun is a foray into more traditional pop territory, and the result is wishy-washy and ultimately forgettable. Equally, Fly Pirate is a more recognisable M.I.A track, but its relentlessness is uncharacteristically unimaginative and grating. On the flip side the previously released Swords, which appears on the Deluxe edition, is a lush mix of groove and clashing swords noises that plays to all her strengths.
For all its merits AIM is a muddled record, and her divisiveness is sometimes counterproductive. Taking aim at one group fighting oppression in favour of another doesn’t help anyone. No one group or individual can solve all the world’s problems, and to use another recently overused, but nonetheless truthful, platitude aren’t we better together? That said its unflinching, brutal honesty is a must, and she has made a thought-provoking record that stirs both the head and the heart. As she rightly says on Talk, “This system has to come/With way better shit than racism/Hatism or Hate Islam/Better check up on the baptism/If you don’t give a fuck that’s skepticism/If you do give a shit that’s whack to some/If you got a brain let’s practice em.” M.I.A clearly does give a shit, and as she takes aim, shots are fired, confusion reigns – but consciences are most definitely sparked.