There’s some really embarrassing, really lazy stuff on here that sounds like total ass, but also some powerfully cool-sounding stuff that ranks with anything she’s done. On first listen the whole album sounded pretty ghastly, as though she’d finally begun the vapid trend-chasing that people have been accusing her of since Maya if not earlier. It sounded like she wasn’t even getting off on the degeneracy, either, which was concerning because degeneracy is the perverse fascination of any honest artist who makes these jumps. The record’s already getting lukewarm-to-scathing reviews, but repeated listens — taken with the admission price of some obnoxiously flat vocals, corny rhymes, and the wide vantage point of a whopping six days after it leaked — reveal lots of weird and bangin’ sounds, and an endearing, almost stoic vibe from the woman leading the charge. In other words, this is a grower. Whaddya know — just like the last two!
Fretting that an M.I.A. album “lacks cohesion” is silly. Y’all, she started her career with an electro-dancehall song that sounded like it cost 12 bucks to make and peaked with a line about sucking dick. I don’t demand cohesion, because it’s not what’s important. People are incoherent. Maya’s been surfing on incoherence and confliction — focuses in her generation’s social climate — from the get-go, which is why the attempts to frame her in explicit political terms can get so tiresome. Many have already noted that 2016 would seem to be M.I.A.’s “moment,” what with immigration such hotly-contested terrain in the media, and indeed AIM contains three songs that deal with illegal immigration more explicitly than she ever has before. The important thing, though, is that it sounds good.
Combining worldbeat hip-hop with pidgin English was a brilliant idea — one of the few good ones anybody had in the mid-‘00s — and it’s led to some pretty inventive stuff in the exploration of the different tone colors you can get from maximizing synthetic technology in the pursuit of rhythm, sweet rhythm. The sounds are often weird and quirky and catchy as hell, and they also purposely emphasize how essentially primitive and cheap and stupid the whole musical climate (and by extension political climate) was and is; how absurdly inconsistent. As with many other great artists, her casual shallowness ends up a hell of a lot more inadvertently profound than, I dunno, the please-take-me-seriously grasps of Nick Cave or whoever this week’s ass-kissing is going to.
While Maya’s been losing fans slowly but surely since it became clear she wouldn’t be able to tap into the zeitgeist as agreeably as she did on her first two albums, I for one have stuck with her. I liked Maya a whole lot, and the Vicki Leekx mixtape, and big chunks of Matangi, which initially sounded like a total failure before I gave it a few months to grow and realized how goddamn admirably strange it was, even when it didn’t come off. I’ve come to realize I should just trust her judgment; she knows what she’s doing. The beats here don’t pivot as much as they did on Matangi, nor are they particularly abrasive like Maya’s. And yet, having a truly drastic change of opinion between any of these records ultimately doesn’t make much sense.
Anyway, the bad news first. For starters, Maya herself sounds flatter and cornier than ever, to frequently obnoxious results. Where once her satirically deadpan, disaffected voice had a springy quality that mocked her flagrant inconsistencies and pious platitudes, here — combined with some of these rhymes — she often sounds like a slack-jawed valley girl who’s been sentenced to community service for shoplifting from Forever 21. Usually these songs come with the kind of sluggy gloomy boring dying-keyboard head-bobbing trap beats that are the pop style of the times: “Foreign Friend”, for instance, with a hook from Dexta Daps that’s like Bruno Mars in histrionic ballad mode, or the “deluxe edition” closer “Platforms”. For that matter, if we’re including the bonus tracks, “The New International Sound” is pretty flimsy too: tossed-off lyrics, vocal blustering to fit the meter, one of those generic “ayy-ayy” hooks anyone could crap out…yet it’s just barely redeemed by the sheer grand, woozy, slightly squelched sweep of that huge synth hook tying it together. Still, compare that track to the similar-sounding “20 Dollar” a decade ago and the new one sounds particularly phoned-in, with none of the sieging, warlike quality of the earlier song.
And there’s filler beyond the boring head-bobbing stuff, too. “Survivor” is probably the worst song of M.I.A.’s career thus far, a terrible piece of half-assed triumphalism, just the worst kind of vapid slow-sway-on-the-beach-with-plastic-flowers-in-your-hair horseshit. It’s like one of those “motivational” image-slogans they put on the wall at shitty office jobs. The practically a cappella loop experiment “Jump In”, though a respectable idea (there is a musicality in the groans and eerie shivery moans of how her voice slips and phases around the title words), doesn’t offer anything special for anyone familiar with the stuff she’s imitating. Bonus track “Talk” is a sketch of no real consequence, and “Visa” is passable but lazy, and “Finally” isn’t bad but it’s not particularly interesting either, and kind of awkward; it should’ve been slower, with less words and more emphasis on the anxious late-evening comedown vibes. That would’ve played even nicer off the quick-looped chipmunk voices and Maya’s own voice toying with the rhyme and echo on the “e” sounds. Oh, and I’ll always hate that dinky, tinny synthesized snare that’s been inescapable since “A Milli”, which on AIM is even used on good tracks like “Borders”.
Which brings us to the good news! For starters, leadoff track and first single “Borders”…well, you don’t need me to tell you about it. Like “Bad Girls” from Matangi, this is another midtempo slow-cruising cock-of-the-walk single with plenty of ‘tude that’s been out for a while before the actual album came out. Both were also songs that even people who panned the albums couldn’t deny. “Borders” starts out as a shallow put-down of Safely Problematic Things, e.g. borders, identities, your privilege, etc., and just meets each of them with a flagrantly shallow “what’s up with that?” before moving on to question everything: your values, beliefs, families, future, power. But it’s the sound itself that’s so original. All of M.I.A.’s songs have an anxious quality to them (I count exactly one that can be considered outright “calm,” that being Maya’s lovely reggae pastiche “It Takes a Muscle”), but in “Borders” the squirming chipmunk voices morphing into pungis, low-droning bass fuzz, and the way everything keeps squirming, is the kind of wooziness that’s active, unlike the checked-out, sluggish quality of a lot of her contemporaries and followers.
The album stays strong after the big single, though. The two following beats, “Go Off” and “Bird Song”, are just as original, even if they’re not as easily-grasped. “Go Off” just fucking slams; the verses aren’t much, but the bizarre metallic, digital squeaks harmonizing with the echoey children’s sing-song hook is a thing of wonder. Skrillex and Blaqstarr — an intoxicating mix. And “Bird Song” actually comes in two versions: the Blaqstarr mix on the album proper, and the Diplo mix as a bonus. The song in either mix is delightfully eccentric, with Maya seeing how much quirky wordplay she can get out of naming birds. (Vulture, ostrich, eagle, falcon, duck, toucan, crow, crane, chicken, and hawk before she yells back, “I need more birds!”) The hook itself is so arrestingly goofy that it could fit easily on one of those weird old tropicália records by people like Tom Zé; it’s like a computer imitating a bird and ending up as some sort of squeaky bird-rodent hybrid. That might sound dreadful, but it’s actually pretty delightful, and catchy as hell to boot. Most prefer the Diplo mix: it’s got big drums and a cool guitar pluck that makes it danceable, with more of a bad-ass stride (“I’m noh’ a lyah bird, I’m noh’ a lyah bird…”). But I need both versions. The Diplo mix is admirably militant, but the Blaqstarr mix really emphasizes the charming strangeness of the hook itself, which I’ve been humming for days.
“Ali R U OK?” is also worth saluting, with its tabla and slapped-drum bed starting like it’s gonna be some cautionary tale, but it ends up both a low-key venting of frustration on the congested economic bustle required in late-stage capitalism, and also a great love/sex song urging a partner to stay home from work. (“All your best days are given to your boss way, tell ‘em you’re working on us today…tell ‘em it’s your birthday.”) It could’ve failed badly, but what with the qawwali voice droning from channel to channel, combined with that tabla, nagging has rarely sounded so sexy. In a similar way, sonically, bonus track “Swords” bases itself around clanging swords in a duel — a fantastic idea — and makes you realize how little difference there is between that sound and the micro-tuned drums of modern trap. It’s a breathless one, that song, and it gets better as it goes along, really kicking into high gear with the tuneful, indecipherable chant moving into the last minute and an original, vexing outro in the last 15 seconds that I wish it’d gone on longer.
“All My People” and “Fly Pirate” are less consistent, shifting between half-assed section and ass-kicking section. In the former, the verses feel like a boring CGI suspense scene in some lame thriller, but the vuvuzela sounds in the breaks command attention, even if she did those noises better on Matangi, and the little upward clamber the percussion does just before the hook is a brilliant bit of programming. “Fly Pirate”, meanwhile, uses a similar siren sound, but it’s more sustained. It starts with a cheesy intro that sounds like a lame ‘90s jungle-y big beat track, and she repeats the title too much toward the end; it should’ve been developed a bit more. And yet, in the parts where the drums are going hard, the thing’s a throbbing, twangy, urgent banger of a track.
And then there’s the big divisive pop “epic” (comparatively, anyway; it’s only five minutes long): “Freedun”. That one features Zayn Malik of One Direction, and whatever musical distinction bringing beats the hell out of me. But he sounds fine behind all the manipulation, especially when his voice breaks into the extended blurry Auto-Tune solo (one of a few ways that the song is M.I.A.’s “Runaway”). It begins really corny: “I’m a swagga man ... From the People’s Republic of Swagistan.” Note to Maya: using “swag” as a prefix to connote a country or language was bad when Kanye did it, and it’s still bad whether or not you’re being “ironic.” And the verse lyrics are weakly-rhymed: “Yeah, history’s just a competition/And do you wanna sign my petition/It’s for the people with education” — NO. But the march-like motion of the drums — which sound live behind the throbbing synth — and the low-key shapeshifting of the recycled-air synth bed ends up quite pretty, and Malik’s howling Auto-Tune solo itself turns gorgeously melodic. The Nas quote and Maya’s own sing-songy “da-duh-dun” hook out of the choruses are lovely, too, almost contented even. Leave it to Polow da Don to make hay out of content that’s dumb only on the surface level.
So, bottom line, you’ve got a few pieces of trash, a couple of sketches whose mileage varies on how well you dig their hooks, and plenty of fantastic stuff that ranks with M.I.A.’s best work, and M.I.A.’s best work is fascinating and damned fun, which is harder to come by than your average press cycle would have you believe. She’s said this’ll be her last album, which of course it won’t. But whenever that time does come, we’ll mourn her absence. “Finally” has one line that’s M.I.A. in a nutshell: “I’m someone’s shot of whiskey, not everyone’s tea.” Loud listening on good headphones is recommended. A MINUS