M.I.A.’s ‘A.I.M.’: Album Review

Few musicians in recent memory have worked harder to successfully — and sometimes unsuccessfully — merge social activism with their art like M.I.A., real name Maya Arulpragasam. The Sri-Lankan-via-London MC has made a career on churning out hip-hop bangers built on a foundation of world music and cutting edge electronic dance music, while using topics like political and state violence, third world oppression and imperialist human rights transgressions as fodder for her verses and imagery for her healthy catalog of thought provoking videos. To be clear, she’s never made out-and-out protest music, even though she feels genuine passion about the issues she focused on. Instead, she deployed these ideas in similar fashion to the many American MC’s who use the backdrop of racial prejudice, gun violence, inner city struggle and the drug epidemic: to stunt on the haters, look good doing it, and entertain listeners while providing a unique perspective with plenty of substance.

And that’s not a bad thing! Arulpragasam makes fun-ass music with weighty subjects, and sometimes that can come across as a little out of touch (the most glaring example being this New York Times article from 2010), even if she regularly provides commentary, political support and philanthropic resources to a number of social causes, and came from a family of activists (her father, Arul Pragasam, was a Tamil revolutionary back in his native Sri Lanka).

But as 2016 has heralded a new wave of pop music activism — Beyonce’s “Formation” comes to mind among many other examples — it looks more and more like Arulpragasam’s past decade of agitprop rap music was prescient and bold in ways she couldn’t foresee. And while, yes, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone about her fifth album A.I.M. (out today, ), she claimed the record will be “…the most positive album [I’ve ever done]. There’s none of these hot topics – no racism, no gender stuff, no politics. It’s going to be an interesting journey for me, this spreading love,” she still released the first promotional materials for the record accompanied by a statement from author Sinthujan Varatharajah on the abuse of refugees across the world. I mean, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Arulpragasam, especially in an election year when every piece of pop culture feels like it’s politically charged with subtexts beyond the texts.

So M.I.A.’s fans can rest easily knowing that A.I.M. is lyrically and thematically not that much different from her past work. Granted, there are a handful of tracks that are devoid of any messaging, namely the early couplet of probably the most listenable hip-hop Arulpragasam has ever produced in the beautifully fluttering “Go Off,” and goofy winner for best beat on the album “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix).” But she’s persists in juxtaposing party-happy rapping with knotty references to things like encrypted hard drives ( the hard driving rager “A.M.P.”), giving the finger border guards (the skittering, motor mouthed and arrogant“Visa”), and “The People’s Republic of Swagistan” (the free floating pop song “Freedun” assisted by a hook from newly-freed Zayn).

And A.I.M.’s biggest departure from M.I.A.’s previous records is the large swaths of breezy, quirky production from the likes of hired guns Diplo, Skrillex and Polow da Don. There’s a sense of release that wasn’t present on records like Arular and MAYA, with fewer instances of abrasive, chattering compositions that M.I.A. loved fixating on. The aforementioned “Freedun” is dreamy cloud of a song, something that’s altogether weird hearing on an M.I.A. record, while “Foreign Friend” feels like something Metro Boomin’ could have put together for Future’s druggy warble.

The album’s two highlights come when Arulpragasam is able to seamlessly blend her weighty subject matter with striking storytelling techniques and innovative production, focusing on the immigrant/refugee experience in two very different ways. The lived-in yet unrelenting weariness of “Ali R U Ok?” is palpable, bouncing with Indian-inflected guitars and drums, as M.I.A. paints a grim picture of working long hours in a new country to send money home, playing both Ali (“All this money that I be taking /I’m just shaking what I’m making / I’m sending bread and bacon / Back home so they can / Fix what’s broken.”) and his worried wife (“All your best days are given to your boss way /Tell ’em you’re working on us today.”) “Jump In” is a bare bones, ghost of a song, relying mostly on looped vocal samples from M.I.A. herself and skittering hi-hats, while she spins a breathless tale of what it means to make the leap and leave your home as a refugee or migrant for a better life in another country: “When I see that border I gon’ cross the line/ When I see that dream I gon’ make it mine / We go we go take off take off / Go hit the sea hit the sea like / Noah’s ark illegal /Jump in.”

“Ali R U OK?” and “Jump In” show what M.I.A. can achieve when she’s locked into delivering powerful stories from oppressed populations who have no voice otherwise. Both tracks lack the glib weirdness that comes with M.I.A.’s tendency to use pretty horrific circumstances as hooks for club-ready hip hop, and feel vital in ways many of the tracks on A.I.M. do not. These songs are far from pedantic infomercials telling listeners how things really are for refugees; they are vivid portraits of a struggle rarely seen up close, crafted by a woman who truly cares about subjects behind the songs themselves. As M.I.A. looks forward to the next phase of her career, “Ali R U OK?” and “Jump In” could be a beacon for the artist she has yet to become.

Score: 4/5

Patrick Bowman

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