Published Sep 08, 2016For a moment there, critics might have had you convinced that M.I.A. lost the plot. Pop music doesn't leave much room for nuance, so while Maya Arulpragasam was lauded for politically charged-if-simplistic lines like "Pull up the people, pull up the poor" on her first album, it was somewhat inevitable that years later, people would turn on a song like /\/\ /\ Y /\'s "The Message," which posited that one's "Handbone connects to the internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government."
Time has been kind to M.I.A., though, and in 2016 — years removed from the politicized scrutiny that tends to follow politically minded musicians, and a few years after the likeable Matangi — M.I.A.'s return feels sorely needed. That A.I.M. feels imbued, for the most part, with the spirit of her early work is a bonus.
A.I.M. begins strongly, with 2015 single "Borders" and Skrillex production "Go Off," a stark juxtaposition of political inferences and pop bluster that suggest M.I.A.'s not interested in keeping the two separated. That's a good thing: it propels the inclusive "A.M.P. (All My People)," the jittery "Visa," which references both "Borders" and Kala's "Bamboo Banga," and "Survivor," a poignant, sparkling song about "trying not to remember" her youth.
M.I.A. is at her best here atop the kind of agitated, swaggering production that made her name in the first place. Skrillex and Blaqstarr absolutely nail the tabla-led beat on "Go Off," while the latter's "Bird Song" and Diplo's later reprise/remix of the song are equally satisfying. Late highlights "Swords" and "Talk" are both enjoyably clangourous, and though its sparseness makes it an outlier, the echoing "Jump In" is delicately hypnotic.
Though it's unreasonably lengthy — A.I.M. comprises a whopping 17 tracks, which can make it hard to absorb all at once — there are surprisingly few missteps here. The Zayn Malik-assisted "Freedun" is a notable one, and not just because it sports the opening line, "I'm a swagger man, rolling in my swagger van, from the People's Republic of Swagistan." Musically, it's somewhat zombie-fied, all hollowed-out lurch with no heart or living, palpable groove. Elsewhere, only "Ali r u ok?" and "Fly Pirate" feel inessential.
Otherwise, there's plenty here to love. A.I.M. may not be concise, but it's focused and purposeful, a loose collection characterized by sticky-hot swagger, political awareness and, most importantly, urgency — even if it's just to the get the party started. (Interscope/Universal Music Canada)