Music Reviews


(Interscope/Polydor) Rating - 6/10

Amid the ubiquity of gadgets in our lives and the evolution of social media in the cultural landscape, a troubling question arises for artists such as M.I.A.: what happens when the cyberspace that birthed you becomes unrecognizable? More than ten years ago, Mathangi Arulpragasam's earth-shattering hit Galang trickled through the MySpace pipeline, and soon enough the British-born and Sri Lankan-raised rapper cemented her status as one of her generation's most provocative musicians: visually, sonically, politically. Flash forward to her latest release, AIM (the album she says will be her last), and one can't help but feel that even Arulpragasam is thinking, now what?

She skirts the question on Borders, the first and most memorable track on the record. The structural simplicity of its lyrics are at once chill-inducing and rather lazy—the song spends four minutes neutrally reciting hot button topics à la a Wikipedia "See also" list and then asking, "what's up with that?". A Middle-Eastern flavored riff squiggles in the background and perfectly timed rim-shots inject the hook with power while Arulpragasam mouths off, her tone dripping with ghetto-inflected ennui. 

Borders ultimately ends up being the blueprint for all of AIM—the best tracks appropriate its best qualities, while the average tracks rehash its more questionable quirks. Jump In occupies a space somewhere in the middle. Undeniably divisive, the song's chopped up vocals and stuttering beats are mesmerizing. Some may no doubt find the experiment ridiculous, but her lyrics sear with conviction: "When I see that border, I gon' cross the line." Fly Pirate operates on similar terms, and Visa sees M.I.A. referencing her own material against a frenetic Brazilian funk sample courtesy of MC Renee. Less successful cuts include Blaqstarr's annoying version of Bird Song and the expendable Finally. Foreign Friend uses a brilliant Dexter Daps interpolation to provide knife-sharp insight into the impossibility of assimilating in a community that only sees difference: "...we get a Benz/ Flat screen tv, then we pay rent/ Then we think we made it/ Then we be your foreign friend." And so it goes—no refugee goes unrepresented, no "system" is safe from M.I.A.'s sound and fury.

Therein lies the problem—by the time the decent-sounding Platforms comes along, we are numb to the plight of the displaced peoples of the world. M.I.A. never does more than name-check, so the refugees she vouches for remain a faceless, amorphous crowd defined solely by vulnerability. Sonically, too, M.I.A. relies on her old tricks. Despite the wealth of glowing beats and rhymes, AIM would have benefitted from some unpredictability. Arulpragasam's sound is distinctive, but because she never establishes any kind of progression of ideas or strategically unites her songs around a theme, the album remains repetitive instead of cohesive.

Such complacency is almost a sin nowadays. The Beyoncés of the world have evolved alongside the Internet, becoming in their turn reflections of the beast that allowed them to drop surprise albums or launch their own streaming services. Others—pop veterans like Britney and Christina as well as newbies like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez—rely on the hit-and-miss potential of their singles to stay afloat in an industry that demands both a calculated social media presence and an awareness of popular music trends. And of course, we have numerous tall poppies—Radiohead, who bemoans Spotify's hegemony; Taylor Swift, who shuns it outright; Adele, who squeezes as many traditional album sales as she can from her fans before making her songs available to stream.

M.I.A., meanwhile, has stuck to the same old business of shooting music videos about redhead genocide and car drifting in Saudi Arabia. For an artist who owes her emergence to the Internet's wiles, and whose fiery activism and lyrics seem so suited to Twitter and Facebook, one would imagine M.I.A.'s promotional savvy to be as cutting edge as her music, and her music to constantly reinvent itself. But alas, her new album is cut from the same multi-pattern cloth that has adorned her career since she first burst on the scene. And what a scene it has since become—even if we don't feel Arulpragasam's presence as strongly as we used to, her influence remains considerable. Any time a big name popstar merges world rhythms with electronic riffs; shoots a video in garish colors or apocalyptic environments; or spits out a gritty verse about empowering the people, they have M.I.A. to thank. On AIM, even M.I.A. has M.I.A. to thank—very little has changed in her sound, image, or her concepts since her arrival.