“Who said it was easy?/They can never stop we” sings the most put-upon recording artist of the last decade — an artist who’s never stopped pulling up her people even as she’s endured pop culture’s repeated persecutions. It’s from the last song on what may be the 41-year old provocateur’s final album, AIM, and it’s as summative an emotional statement as “Borders,” the set’s opener and lead single, is a thematic one: This is an album that makes a negotiation between the commercial and personal sides of Maya Arulpragasm’s life and art its centerpiece concern. “Borders,” of course, also serves to contextualize the deceptively frivolous-sounding songs that follow, giving them a polemical purpose. Those songs can be, appropriately, divided neatly into sections. There’s the first part of the album, beginning in earnest after “Borders” with “Go Off,” and its weaponized, clubby drum n’ bass depth charges; climaxing with boy band ex-pat Zayn Malik helping M.I.A. through the most unabashedly pop moment of her career — which smuggles in secretly woke lines (“refugees learn about patience”) alongside the unapologetically silly ones (“think of me sorta like Tarzan”); and closing out with “Finally,” a self-actualization dancehall track that would sequence nicely with, and gently interrogate, contemporary appropriations of the genre like Drake’s “One Dance” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”
AIM leads with M.I.A.’s magpie-Machiavelli pop instincts.
Having concisely showed off her facility with the west’s favored trends and tropes, M.I.A. heads east: “A.M.P. (All My People),” “Ali R U OK?,” and “Visa,” draw on the global music traditions (bhangra beats, tabla and thavil drums, qawwali vocals, twanged mouth harp, and ode) she made her name out of mixing and matching, on albums like Arular and the classic Kala (“Visa” even samples her first great single, “Galang”). Tellingly, the lyrics of these songs gradually pivot away from boastful personal narratives: ‘A.M.P.’ uses M.I.A.’s self-image as a means for recruitment and “Ali R U OK?” loops AIM‘s cycle of appropriation back around, riffing on the hook of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” — MJ being by some margin the most recognized western pop music icon throughout much of Asia today — to pen a sympathetic character sketch for an overworked immigrant cab driver which subtly morphs into a love song. After spending the near-entirety of her supposedly “care-free” album furiously freighting influences back and forth, M.I.A. then smashes together east and west on the penultimate “Fly Pirates,” a manifesto which melds the bass and snare attack of the set’s first half and the furiously insistent traditional instrumentation of its second, burying, in a rush of mantra-like, pared-down verses, an overriding truism: “People on the brink, that’s where my heart’s at.” She earns “Survivor,” then, her syrupy, congratulatory finale — which at least pointedly extends its own catharsis to the “we” of the hook. Likewise, she’s well earned this album of half-negotiated ceasefires: After a career of putting the fight first, AIM leads with M.I.A.’s magpie-Machiavelli pop instincts, and its thoughtful, formally rigorous collage is a gratifying success for the finally-happy warrior.