Unabashed activism is important. Important, and dangerous. The more radicalized we become, the less we allow our positions to be challenged and our understandings to be broadened. It’s easy to scream talking points over confrontation — nuance is hard. AIM, the fifth and supposed final album from the Sri Lankan refugee artist M.I.A, would have benefited from some confrontation and nuance.
The production, handled by Diplo, is “bigger” here than on nearly any of her previous works — though not necessarily better. Right from the start a pounding bass is placed at the foreground. “Borders” pulses with the familiarity of any number of Electric Daisy Carnival headliners: swirling synths, the pause of the production on a high pitched hook and the quick return, accompanied either by the sound of a car zooming or, maybe, a refrigerator powering up.
Much here resembles an echo, and not always in the most pleasant or successful way. The beats can echo into redundancy. M.I.A.’s delivery echoes her previous work, often incorporating and rehashing lyrics and references from her own discography. And the album itself echoes what once was, distant from the greatness of earlier albums like Kala and Arular.
AIM does have its moments, though. “Go Off” is exciting and catchy enough to feel in your bones, and manages to make some of the subtle, yet biting critiques of Western society that she’s done so well in the past: “At least you tell your children I came from London.” The braggadocious “A.M.P.” recalls some of her more successful tracks, like “Bamboo Banga” and “Boyz.” But it’s the final — and best — track, “Platforms,” which offers us the most powerful reminder of that burning yellow roman candle we once knew, with contemplative, cryptic lyrics and a confident flow that demands attentiveness. That it took 16 tracks to reach this level of success, though, is telling.
What’s certain is that there is nothing here even remotely comparable to her ceiling-shattering single “Paper Planes” or the unforgettable “Bad Girls.”
The rest of the album, frankly, is almost entirely forgettable. This is especially frustrating given the reputation that she’s built as a kind of global ambassador in recent years. Where she once stitched sounds and ideas from Bollywood films and pre-teen Australian rap groups, she’s now rapping about Proactiv over commercialized beats and shouting out R. Kelly. It’s almost baffling the lack of actual substance included on this album, given the ongoing migrant crisis, increasing global xenophobia and the increasing growing disdain shown to refugees today. These are all issues M.I.A. has been a fierce critic of before. Why she isn’t making an equally fierce album in response is anyone’s guess.
When she does makes statements here, they come across as confusingly boring and underdeveloped, like she’s listing talking points, not arguing for them. She opens the album with a series of questions: “Borders / What’s up with that? / Politics / What’s up with that? / Police shots / What’s up with that?” The ideas here have potential, which makes it all the more frustrating that she only brushes them with vague and lazy hands — there’s so much that she could have done, and has done before, that she hardly even attempts on AIM.
Perhaps M.I.A. fans would be better off simply omitting this final album. There’s too much to praise, to admire, before this.