M.I.A.’s work is always busy. Whether it’s that stylishly slapdash album art, those frenzied music videos or that outrageous wardrobe, barring track lists, M.I.A. doesn’t seem to believe in sequencing. Her songs don’t play; they detonate, each element individually rocketing to the finish line, competing rather than collaborating. M.I.A. tends to rule this chaos with assured ease, her voice drifting over the bedlam like a principal’s voice through a school building, coming from nowhere but somehow everywhere. AIM, her fifth album, has all the sights, sounds and sentiments of her previous work, but it’s weighed down by an overwhelming sense of tedium. M.I.A. used to sound busy because she was brimming with ideas, but here she’s busy trying to find an idea to cling to.
A slew of keywords populates the album: borders, visas, freedom, pirates, birds. The thematic bent is clear from the jump. “Borders,” the album’s first and best song, focuses on the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, insisting that the regional emergency is also a global and existential one. “What’s up with that?” M.I.A. queries in the refrain, casually stitching freedom, values, love and goals together into a patchwork of global responsibility. It’s a hell of a track, from M.I.A.’s wobbly patois, to that wailing instrumental, which merges sirens, zooming racecar engines and expansive synths. But it’s also an indictment of the rest of the album.
M.I.A. has spent her career weaving disparate sounds and narratives together, but beyond “Borders,” that skill seems to have been completely lost. Those keywords appear over and over again, but they don’t refer to anything or anyone, just a faceless mob. “Bird Song” is a maze of a track. M.I.A. attempts to draw a throughline between birds and migrants and drones, but the lyricism is completely flat, losing itself in its own weak ambition. Likewise, “Visa” takes place at the US/Mexican border and references Mexican migrants, but these migrants are just at the border. There’s no sense of danger or urgency or even presence. “Mexicans say hola,” M.I.A. flatly announces as if she’s reading stage directions. M.I.A. has never been a bar-for-bar lyricist, but traditionally what she’s lacked in technical finesse was subsidized with a keen eye for detail. On “Bring the Noize” from Matangi she described herself as an “overweight heavyweight female Slick Rick” and the comparison worked because above all she was a storyteller. The characters may have been fuzzy, but they were always doing things: eating mangos, dashing their curry, standing on the corner, banging on the dash. Here, they stand idle, accounted for but static, scripted but not plotted.
But even if the content wasn’t so stilted, there’d still be the issue of songcraft. M.I.A. has never had a problem experimenting with form. Even the briefest survey of her work reveals some crazy constructions. Take Matangi’s “Warriors.” Abruptly shuffling between raga sitar, industrial drums and sludged vocals, the track proceeds like rush hour traffic, starting and stopping in unpredictable fits. Likewise, Kala’s “XR2” places a maddeningly whispered chorus atop blaring horns and dares the listener to try to parse the words. AIM is drolly straightforward. Tracks like “Bird Song” and “Ali r u ok?” have simple sample loops that are barely embellished; instead of building to anything, they just languish, loud but neglected.
And this more traditional use of samples would be fine if M.I.A. had more dynamic vocals, something she’s fully capable of, but instead she just belts out vague rhymes. “All work and no play, I think we need a holiday,” she chants on “Ali r u ok?” (which references “Smooth Criminal). M.I.A.’s always been more of a rapper in ethos rather than execution, but on AIM the label weighs her down. “Life is hard for the people like we/Say life’s a box of chocolates, we say who packed it?/ Do you feel me?” she raps on “Foreign Friend,” which embarrassingly interpolates Young Thug’s hyperkinetic “Best Friend.” Again, M.I.A.’s never been an adept lyricist, but this is what a 10-year veteran raps? Yeesh.
M.I.A. has always been a variety show. In addition to being so many things (immigrant, refugee, rebel, artist, provocateur, mother) she’s also done many things (directed, produced, engineered, danced, protested, survived a civil war). That bustle and that multiplicity have always come across in her work, and they faintly bubble up on AIM (“Jump In” is one verse away from perfection), but the variety was always the icing on the cake. Above all, M.I.A.s appeal was her audacity, her insistence that any sound and any image could be sewn together and brought to life. AIM isn’t nearly as ambitious. It’s just busywork, M.I.A. watching the clock, scanning the news, occupied, but idle.