M.I.A. was once a name that rung around stadiums and plastered magazine covers, while being the spectacle of mainstream media. After her sophomore album Kala, M.I.A’s skyrocketing success gradually fell to pieces with 2010’s MAYA album lighting the insatiable flame that burned her empire slowly.
Amongst the flames, the music industry as a collective, from critics to businessmen turned their sharp tongues towards her. MAYA’s reception was somewhat catastrophic compared to her previous efforts and later down the line, the fiasco with the NFL didn’t help either, in fact, it was the final nail in her coffin. While she was experiencing the fall from grace in the music business, she also experienced personal struggles, amalgamating in the form of both Matangi and brand new album AIM.
Matangi’s rollout was plagued by the music industry’s blacklist against her. Her record label, Interscope delayed the album numerous times and the tension behind the scenes grew to a fever pitch, with M.I.A. threatening to leak the album and leave the industry behind all together. Although Matangi was in a state of limbo, it was eventually released with barely any promotion and a documentary to go alongside it, was pulled at the last minute.
M.I.A.’s Matangi sold 14,000 copies in the first week, which was a far cry from what she was used to. Her star power had finally diminished and perhaps the vampiric, shady aspects of the big business had a part to play but despite this, M.I.A. toured and then took three years to work on AIM. AIM has been called her swan song, the rapper stated that, after this album, she would leave the industry in pursuit of other creative endeavours.
After the trials of fire, M.I.A. has built AIM to be the album, the perfect farewell, so to speak. Her goodbye to her fans, to the industry and to her musical career, starts explosively with “Borders”, which is one of M.I.A.’s best songs to date.
AIM keeps the pace with the two lead singles “Go Off” & “Bird Song”. “Go Off” is a stroke of brilliance, it’s a representation of what modern M.I.A. is capable of. It demonstrates her ear for sound and a talent for crafting a sublime experience. While “Bird Song” garnered criticism, I find it to be a quirky, harmless ode to silliness. It’s a nice listen with the kazoo stealing the show.
After the first three tracks, M.I.A. takes a different approach. “Jump In” is a slowed down, glitchy affair, offering a taster of what’s to come. The Zayn assisted track, “Freedun” is an airy, lush affair with M.I.A. delivering relaxed vocals, injected with bravado.
The chorus is harmonious, transcending the swirling synths. Zayn’s vocals beautifully create a surge of emotion. The juxtaposition of M.I.A.’s and Zayn’s vocals can make the track seem lazy and messy. However, after a couple of listens, the tracks structure and aesthetic sinks in. It’s a bizarre yet necessary experience. Overall it’s a decent song too, once it clicks.
Both “Foreign Friend” and “Finally” are anthemic in their own way, with pop sensibilities at their core. They’re safe and calmer in sound compared to M.I.A.’s usual aggressive and inaccessible sound. They’re good, not outstanding and these run of tracks act as a breather before AIM explodes again with “A.M.P (All My People)”.
This track is M.I.A. back to her best, with a violent beat propelling a break-neck paced level of arrogance from the rapper. She dances over the loud, raucous beat flexing her lyrical muscles with finesse. It’s another example of M.I.A.’s impeccable craft, that is creating anthems.
Once “A.M.P…” is over, it’s apparent the standard edition of AIM is very much an album of two halves, divided by the smoother, patchy middle. The first half and the last half ‘bang’ as the kids say, with all the tracks being quintessential M.I.A., built upon fiery, bombastic, glitchy beats and her signature flow.
“Visa” is a highlight, its stampeding, exotic beat is built on a foundation of electronic, well-composed chaos. Pounding drums lead the way with interjecting spasming synths while the chorus is an anthemic howl followed by a funky flutter of instrumentation. The stronger moments highlight the need for a revamped track list.
The fact that the standard edition is only twelve tracks is a problem, especially because this album is supposed to be her last. It’s the grand finale of her career, and it doesn’t offer enough star-quality content. It’s a mash up of who M.I.A. is and has been through her career. Some fans will love the messiness of the album, some will loathe it. Some will feel cheated and some will be satisfied either way.
The album’s closer “Survivor” isn’t strong enough either, it’s fairly weak lyrically, and vocally it lacks bite. Although M.I.A. Is known for her ice-cold flow, it can sometimes be jarring when contrasted against her often larger than life instrumentals. This is what “Freedun” suffers from at first.
When she attempts sugary sweetness, like she does with “Survivor”, her sing-song, mixed up rap flow offers mixed results. While the verses are strong, the repetition of ‘survivor, survivor’ is bland and deflated. The musical backdrop is grandiose, it’s pleasing and even ethereal with the shimmering keys and floaty strings. Overall, the standard edition of AIM is worth it for die-hard fans. However, the real gem is the Deluxe edition.
The Deluxe edition offers five more songs and although they vary in quality, they hover around the stronger end of the spectrum rather than the weaker end. We get the clever “Swords” with the beat being a clashing of swords, with the metal ringing out underneath the vocals. M.I.A. sounds enthused and it’s a great track because of it.
The extra tracks round off the experience, although, there’s a lingering sense of AIM sounding unfinished. It seems like it wasn’t fully fleshed out and there are sparks, pieces of genius scattered throughout, but they’re executed without care. While the slow down was necessary from “Jump In” onwards, there needed to be more consistency and cohesiveness.
The mellow tracks are a wedge between the album, splitting it into two sounds, lending to the unfinished feeling. The two halves themselves are excellent enough for a swan song, but perhaps “Swords” and “Platforms” should have replaced a couple of the sugary, melodic tracks. The bonus tracks possess more of M.I.A.’s identity, and her identity is AIM’s beating heart.
The album’s nature requires several listens before considering whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s one of those albums that needs to be soaked in and really examined. Instrumentally it’s layered and exquisite, which is what we’ve come to expect from M.I.A. and dare I say instrumentally, it’s flawless.
The sore points are the pacing and particular instances of M.I.A.’s unhinged flow. She does what she wants and that’s evident. While that’s courageous and an example of her artistic integrity, there needs to be a level of quality control. Some tracks would of been lifted and improved greatly if certain small areas were addressed.
AIM is a wild ride and it reflects M.I.A.’s struggle since before and after Matangi. There is a sense of personal closure for her and that’s clear through the content of the album. It very much feels like she’s coming to terms with how the industry has chewed her up and spat her out. It’s actually quite saddening that its worn her out this much, that she’s come to the point of no return: the release of her ‘final’ album.
AIM doesn’t whimper, it doesn’t crumble, it’s an excellent experience, especially for an M.I.A. fan but it isn’t the send off an artist such as herself deserves. The Deluxe is a hint of what could have been, ending on “Platforms”, a far better closer than “Survivor”. “Platforms” is poignant, and it’s an example of her slowed-down flow succeeding alongside the simmering beat.
M.I.A.’s AIM takes aim at the industry, at the world and her own career. It’s an embodiment of who she is and it is closure to the last few years of struggle. For her, it delivers peace and serenity, but for her fans it’ll leave questions and in many cases, it’ll leave you wanting more.
When AIM fires on all cylinders, it ends up being some of her best work to date. AIM is a musical projection of an artist’s life and sound, it’s far from faultless but it’s spectacularly fun. The sheer chaos that ensues is both memorable and maddening. M.I.A. is finally letting go of her power, power. Purchase AIM on iTunes here.
Words by Jake Gould