M.I.A. has always been something like a genius at weaving her voice through samples: the shards of early-’00s pop on the Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, the iconic strums of the Clash’s “Straight To Hell” on “Paper Planes,” even the throwback rave synth-stabs that showed up a few times on 2013’s Matangi, M.I.A.’s most recent album. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the most thrilling, telling moment on her new album, AIM, comes from a sample. But what’s surprising is what’s being sampled. About halfway through the otherwise aimless “Visa,” the track drops away, and we suddenly hear “ya ya heeeeey,” the euphoric war-cry from M.I.A.’s 2003 debut single “Galang.” It works as a sudden and jarring splash of nostalgia, a sharp reminder of what kind of artist M.I.A. used to be. She’s not capable of a moment like that now. She knows it, and we know it. It’s a bit like the moment the Beastie Boys sampled Ad-Rock’s “nnnnn-drop” soundbite on “Intergalactic.” It’s the moment when once-fearless artists more or less admit that they’re out of ideas, that they’re content to remind themselves and their audiences of why everyone cared in the first place.
Throughout AIM, M.I.A. sounds like someone in need of a reminder. She sounds blasé throughout the album, but that’s nothing new. Her eerie seen-it-all calm used to be one of her greatest assets. When we first met her, she was coolly sing-rapping over state-of-the-art tracks, music that grabbed every halfway-fly cultural artifact within arm’s reach and repurposed it for insurrectionist party-starting ends. And she floated over all this chaos with a detached sort of panache. She’d seen too many things for those tracks to affect her. It’s a tough thing: projecting energy and don’t-give-a-fuck frostiness at the same time, a bit like how fashion models have to radiate intensity while standing perfectly still. M.I.A. had it down then. She doesn’t have it down anymore.
On AIM, M.I.A. sounds like she’s ambling along, filling space, never investing herself in what’s going on. The tracks sound a bit like what she was doing 13 years ago, but without the purpose and direction; it’s just those similar sounds rattling around again. It’s hard to imagine how M.I.A. would update her sound; it’s not like some Atlanta trap beats or post-“One Dance” quasi-dancehall breeziness would fix everything for her. But if recruiting Skrillex for a couple of tracks was M.I.A.’s idea of updating her operating system, it doesn’t work out, especially since Skrillex is mostly offering his version of the sound M.I.A. was doing a decade ago. These days, when M.I.A. jumps on jittery, barely-there heartbeat-drums on “Jump In” or dancehall shudders on “Finally,” there’s a sense of diminishing returns. She’s been doing this stuff, and she isn’t finding anything new in it. And it’s intriguing on paper to hear Zayn Malik showing up on “Freedun,” but his airy mewl doesn’t exactly grant her the sense of purpose that she needs.
M.I.A. has talked about how she wanted AIM to be a personal album, not a political affair. It’s a bit weird, in an era when the Republican presidential candidate is threatening to keep people who look like M.I.A. out of the United States, to see her falling back from the fearless stances that she once took. And M.I.A. does address the anti-foreigner paranoia that’s swept the US and the UK in recent years, staring it in the eye on “Borders” and “Visa.” But the lyrics that she’s offering — “Borders: what’s up with that? / Politics: what’s up with that?” — aren’t exactly going to drive some new wave of political action. Still, M.I.A. has been fighting these battles for longer than just about any other pop culture figure. If she wants to look internally rather than externally, who are we to tell her what she should be singing?
That said, she should probably not be singing what she’s singing on AIM, if only because so many of her new lyrics are so gallingly, glaringly dumb. “Bird Song,” with its wealth of bird-related puns, is knowingly silly, and it gets away with what should be some real forehead-slapper lines (“gully like a seagull”?). But then it quickly becomes apparent that forehead-slapper lines are just about all the album has to offer. Consider: “Lara Croft is soft when it comes to my stuff / She’s made up, I’m real, that’s enough / Dinosaurs died out and I’m still strong / A little bit of fun, yeah, I don’t see the wrong.” She is literally bragging about not being fictional and not being dead. Or: “I’ll keep on coming back like your fucking acne.” “Foreign Friend” has a few sharp, knowing lines about how we fetishize the people in our lives who come from other places, but M.I.A.’s lines about friends supporting each other are some of the most bland, vague, platitudinous things she’s ever written. M.I.A. had to go into battle with Interscope to get AIM released, even threatening to leak it herself at one point. And hearing it after reading that, you might find yourself wondering: She went to war for this?
M.I.A. has also said that AIM may be her last album. If this is indeed the end, it caps off a fascinating, confounding run. During the past decade-plus, there were plenty of moments where M.I.A. felt like the most vital and important pop-music force on the planet. She pulled off something like stardom while remaining opaque and provocative, never letting her audience in on the particulars of her personal life the way so many of her descendants do today. And she also took risks that didn’t pay off; with the Super Bowl bird-flip and the legal battle that followed, she might as well have done like the KLF and lit all her “Paper Planes” money on fire. If she’s ready to call this music thing off and move onto something else in her life, fair enough. She has done some truly great things, and she deserves whatever good things her future might have in store for her. It’s just a shame she had to go out on such a shrug of a record.
AIM is out now on Interscope. Stream it below.