I’ll never forget the first time I heard M.I.A.’s explosive debut album Arular. It was 2005, and I was angstier than ever—coming home from my uber-square high school, I would strip my chinos and blast the raucous album from my family’s desktop computer. “London, quiet down, I need to make a sound,” I’d yell through marijuana plumes emanating from my sister’s bedroom. “Can you put on Jack Johnson?” she’d whine. No one understood me.
Kala came out in 2007, when I was a junior in college and significantly happier—making music, writing constantly, and surrounded by freaks like me. While she was over ten years older (I pray I’m as sexy as M.I.A. at 41), it was as if the artist was going along with me on my personal journey. While Arular was recorded alone in her West London bedroom—the sound of a woman forced to isolate in order to speak her truths—Kala was recorded all over the world—the sound of a woman who realized she had something important to say and people were listening. With Arular, I was alone, looking for someone to share my enthusiasm for M.I.A.’s rowdy punk politics; with Kala, I was dancing to the frenetic “Bird Flu,” “Boyz,” and “Come Around” with my best friends into the late hours of the morning. My obsession knew no bounds; in fact, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on M.I.A.—an overly ambitious, borderline nonsensical but extremely passionate 53 pages on the Sri Lankan-born artist.
Having now listened to AIM an embarrassing number of times, I feel similarly about her fifth studio album as I do about the two prior—it contains flickers of brilliance but reflects a mere shadow of the M.I.A. I fell in love with during my formative years.
Self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” and M.I.A. aficionado Robert Christgau comparedKala to Kanye’s Late Registration in that it is an “unexpectedly sure-footed follow-up to a brainy beat-adept’s can-you-top-this-debut.” Kala succeeds despite the fact it is “less pop-friendly than its predecessor. It’s heavier, noisier, more jagged.” In a similar vein, Pitchforkwrote: “for all the choices she might have made and the audiences she might have aimed at, the fresh-sounding, adventurous, and not-exactly-accessible Kala is the kind of record that obviously demanded a defined personal vision.” AIM, by contrast, doesn’t stray meaningfully from what at this point is the artist’s comfort zone: cheeky and politically conflicted, riding genre-bending beats with a detached, post-modern swagger.
It’s hard to think of “Borders”-- AIM’s opening track --without imagining the startling image of M.I.A. and various faceless bodies hanging on a massive replica of the Melilla border fence against a moody dark blue sky. Trained as a visual artist, post-Kala M.I.A. has perhaps best showcased her brilliance through her evocative and visually stunning music videos (see also “Bring the Noize,” “Bad Girls”). “Borders” as a song alone—while catchy—isn’t anything we haven’t heard before. Juxtaposing shallow cultural slogans (“being bae / what’s up with that?”) with fierce pronouncements of revolution (“Yeah guns blows door to the system / Yeah fuck 'em when we say we're not with them”), this is M.I.A. at her most comfortable.
In “Go Off,” M.I.A. raps in a computerized voice over a South Asian-flavored beat modernized by longtime collaborator Blaqstarr. “At least tell your children I came from London,” she says, suggesting that her upbringing in a first world country is the sole reason behind her Western success. Her insistence that we consume her in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons is nothing new. In 2007, M.I.A. toldPitchfork regarding her critically-acclaimed collaborations with Diplo: "I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can't have any ideas on my own because I'm a female or that people from undeveloped countries can't have ideas of their own unless it's backed up by someone who's blond-haired and blue-eyed.”
“Bird Song,” also produced by Blaqstarr (the original Diplo version was relegated to a bonus track for legal reasons), also shows a familiar M.I.A. gliding nonchalantly along an Indian-style beat littered with kazoos. She alternates between silly puns (“I’m robin this joint,” “But toucan fly together”) and moments of genuine poetic brilliance, such as when she packs references to mid-2000’s party-rapper Nelly, the late icon Prince, and drones in the same stanza: “Drop down and get your eagle on / like a falcon / fly phenomenon / humming higher than a drone / doves cry.” As with her most popular track “Paper Planes” (which played in Judd Apatow’s Pineapple Express and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire), M.I.A. again uses flight as a metaphor for refugee liberation. “Jump In” harkens back to Arular -- minimal, repetitive, multi-layered -- but it lacks the kinetic spark of M.I.A.’s debut.
AIM best succeeds in two places. The first is easy for me to write. In her review of Rihanna’s “Consideration” for The New York Times Magazine, Doreen St. Felix wrote that as Rihanna’s voice melds into SZA’s, the “closeness approaches uncanny, suggest[ing] an erotics of the self.” In her recent interview with Zane Lowe, M.I.A. said she was compelled to make this album in part because she found herself single for the first time since 2007: “I was excited...to use music to find out where I as at and who I was.”
AIM’s first area of success, therefore, lies in its erotics of the self. The album’s hottest moment is when “Freedun” inverts the frenetic intro of 2013’s “Bring the Noize”—“Dem-dem-dem-free-freekdem!”—into the softer, “Freek da da da dum, freek da dum,” which slides effortlessly between the pillowy vocals of featured guest Zayn. On the bridge, M.I.A. sings: “I've gotta sing my song tonight/ And you gotta sing my song tonight/ Tonight you're gonna sing my song/ You gonna sing my song tonight,” showcasing her newfound self-love. On “Visa,” she samples “Galang’s” “ya ya heyyyyyyy” and melds it into a hammering piano hook. “Visa” is chock full of references to previous albums (“They call me Arular, trendsetter, making life better;” “everybody say ‘Y.A.L.A!;’” “I’m a Bamboo Banga;” “pour yourself a shot of tequila”), as though she’s aware that her days of critical acclaim are behind her. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to care: “Time for a banger, throw up your middle finger.”
While her inconsistent political beliefs infuriate many (that the video for “Borders,” a self-proclaimed “protest song,” was released in a partnership with Apple--one of the world’s most profitable companies--is a prime example), I take no issue with her ideological dissonance. She isn’t running for office; she’s an artist, and art should embrace nuance and gray areas to expose hypocrisy and challenge assumptions. As Christgau noted in his Kala review, what made the album so great was that it surprised us—we expected M.I.A. to go one way, and she went another.
As a lover of innovative, borderline-jarring sounds (Kala, Arular), and a detester of most pop music, AIM’s second area of success is harder for me to write. When I first learned that M.I.A. had a track with a former member of One Direction, I admittedly threw up in my mouth a bit. But M.I.A. surprised me. As I mentioned above, Zayn’s cloudlike voice sandwiched in between the melodic remix of her “Bring the Noize” intro works brilliantly. Other songs that pleasantly surprised me include the soft and euphonious tracks “Finally,” “Survivor” and “New International Sound - Pt. 2.” The LA Times wrote of “Finally”--produced by Jose Barbosa of Buraka Som Sistema (and punctured by M.I.A.’s trademark surprisingly-placed gunshots): “Here she forgoes clever wordplay and sings in sincere, unguarded tones about her efforts to rise above the fray.”
Finally what haters say about me don’t worry me / I keep it moving forward to what’s ahead of me / You gonna see I’m gonna be / And you’re gonna remember me
And she’s right.
By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Instagram