The storied history behind the release of what M.I.A. is now deeming her “final” album (but we all know how that tends to go, especially when made in a statement so definitive) has offered more than enough insight into why the beloved rapper wishes to make AIM–her fifth album–the coda of her musical career.
A similar fate befell Matangi back in 2013, also met with the same amount of mixed acceptance. Thus, the ongoing issue M.I.A. has had with using a major label–Interscope–to translate her iconoclastic message on a palatable mass scale has served as the last straw for the expression of her creativity musically. To combat the backlog of bureaucratic foilings at every turn with Interscope, M.I.A. first began doling out tracks from the album like bread crumbs back in June of 2015, with “The New International Sound, Pt. 2” (a collusion with one of producer Surkin’s side projects, GENER8ION), and the singles “Swords” and “Borders” unleashed on the internet soon after.
The latter’s accompanying video is the first instance of the record–then still titled Matahdatah–drawing attention for its politically charged stance on the treatment of refugees as less than human. Sarcastically imitating the faux interest and care of the First World, M.I.A., chants, “Poverty, what’s up with that?/Broke people, what’s up with that?” So impassioned regarding the matter is M.I.A. that she even directed the video herself and bore the aftermath of being sued by yet another sporting organization (this after her middle finger stirred controversy with the NFL at the 2012 Super Bowl), Paris St. Germain, for altering their sponsor’s logo, Fly Emirates, to Fly Pirates.
The effervescent exuberance of “Go Off” will make you want to do just that, as M.I.A. reverts to the viscerally-tinged beats so prevalent on her debut, Arular. Making assertions that will have illuminati conspiracy theorists atwitter, M.I.A. raps, “Yeah I don’t lose focus like a German called Sven/My third eye’s open and my focus ain’t joking/Yeah you got it wrong, ’cause my focus is so strong.” Bringing her most irreverent sense of humor to the lyrics, she also adds in similes that include, “Like aliens in villages/We’re here for all ages.”
Quite literally chirpy, “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix)” opens with sounds that emulate a bird to a sampled tune from an Indian movie called Oru Kili Uruguthu. Continuing to prove that–as she later declares–she’s a writer, M.I.A. plays on words with regard to varying breeds of avian species, opening with, “I’m a parrot/I’m robin this joint/Not a lyre bird/Sure ain’t a vulture/Don’t swallow that cause I make the culture/I’m not a lyre bird/Staying rich like an ostrich.” Indeed, the menagerie of symbolism makes one re-think the meaning of the word “bird brain” with regard to just how poignant they can be–or at least when M.I.A. infuses them with a certain intelligence in her work. Then again, M.I.A.’s use of birds in her songs first began in 2007 with “Bird Flu,” in which the frenzied sounds of chicken-like birds punctuate the auditory backdrop of the track. The video for the song also addresses M.I.A.’s longstanding empathy for refugees, with the footage shot in India, as M.I.A. later explained, “close to the refugee camp where all the Sri Lankans get off the boat in India in the south, just outside Chennai. I went to this press office from 1986 or something, and found all these pictures of the refugees… I didn’t find pictures of us but I found pictures of my dad.” The connections between “Bird Flu” and “Bird Song” persist when taking into account that the former also samples music from a Tamal language Indian movie, called Jayam.
“Jump In” is possibly the most “throwaway” song on AIM, featuring a mumbly introduction that segues into M.I.A. repeating, “Jump in, ju/Jump in, ju/Jump in, ju/Jump in, ju/Jump in, jump in.” However, it finds a moment of profundity when alluding once again to the motif that “invades” the album, with M.I.A. insisting, “When I see that border/I gon’ cross the line.”
“Freedun” featuring ZAYN rivals “Go Off” and “Ali R U OK?” for most danceable (and therefore best) song on AIM. Refusing to let up on the topic of refugees, the crux of “Freedun” highlights, “Refugees learn about patience/Sometimes, I have many visions/I don’t even need a religion/I’m a new frontier on horizons.” Persisting in an iteration that borders are a contrivance, M.I.A. also sets the second “alien” bait for those conspiracy theorists reading into her abovementioned “third eye,” singing, “Yeah, I sail this ship to the thousands/Even aliens see the presentation.” And then, of course, there’s the typically romantic of ZAYN chorus: “All the stars are still shining/But you’re the only one I see/I can feel when your heart beats…”
The duets don’t stop after “Freedun,” as “Foreign Friend” also includes vocals from Dexta Daps on a song that connotes earnestness and urgency–not just about the need for friendship, but the way those from foreign countries are viewed by those, for all intents and purposes, “fetishizing” other races. The motives for many ridden with guilt about not having enough “ethnic” friends see acclimated foreigners as an easy way to fill the racial void. As M.I.A. notes, “I said as a refugee, you know/Where we come from, we get out our tent/Then we climb over the fence/We don’t wanna cause an offense/Then we get a Benz, flatscreen TV, and we pay rent/Then we think we made it/Then we be your foreign friend.” In other words, “foreign friends” are not taken as they are at the outset of arriving to a country.
The self-assured confidence of “Finally” exhibits M.I.A. at her most Ray of Light state of zenness–tranquil and at peace with herself and others. Affirming, “You gonna see/I’m not gonna waste energy/’Cause I’m free and I’m a freak,” M.I.A. does come across as slightly less enraged on this track. But signs of the cynic shine through when she pays homage to The Verve’s only aphorism by remarking, “Life’s just a bittersweet symphony.” And while, yes, AIM may be showing us a kindler, gentler Maya, make no mistake: there is no one who better exemplifies the notion that to be alive is to be infuriated.
On this note, the transition to the frenetic “A.M.P. (All My People)” channels Lady Sovereign and harkens back to the razor sharpness of her Kala era, with M.I.A. insisting, “I can’t keep myself in check like a Mormon” when it comes to despising men for their callous actions but also relying on them for pleasure. The depth of her cocksureness beams brightly as she balks, “They wanna stop me/Galliano sack me/I’ll keep on coming back/Like your freaking acne/I am proactive/Brand new perspective/Back on a MAC tip with matching red lipstick.”
Sounding like something that should have been on the soundtrack for The Darjeeling Limited, M.I.A. draws once again from an Indian-tinged influence for “Ali R U OK?” Produced by Richard X, who also worked with her on Arular, the innocence of the song is cinched by the fact that it’s inspired by an Uber driver.
Taking a cue from other artists with a large enough breadth of work, M.I.A. often gets self-referential on her music and lyrics, as with “Visa” (originally released as “MIA OLA”), in which she uses the beat of “Galang” while name checking past tracks like “Bamboo Banga,” “Y.A.L.A.,” and “Teqkilla.” The song’s name change to “Visa” is undoubtedly a dig at the singer’s own issues with being unable to obtain one in order to promote her work in the United States.
Seeing as how M.I.A. already got sued for wearing a Fly Pirates shirt, she presumably had no fear about including “Fly Pirate” on AIM. An allusion to the manner in which refugees essentially travel–illegally and therefore not on a plane–M.I.A. encourages the notion that it’s better to take a voyage with some risk involved in order to reap the reward, shouting, “See the sea/do the boat.”
Not to be confused with the Destiny’s Child song of the same name, “Survivor” is something of a companion to the ethereality of “Finally,” showcasing M.I.A. in another state of calm. Revealing a reflective mood, M.I.A. laments with enough sagacity, “Trying not to remember/My time in the fire/’Cause ain’t gonna tell ya/This war is never over.” The war in question is more than just the ongoing one between any given country, but the internal battle one must fight on a daily basis.” Again making sure to insinuate refugee existence into the lyrics, she adds, “I ride through the sea like a pirate/Just to flow with the water/Can’t carry feelings/Like basket can’t carry water.”
Re-teaming, somewhat surprisingly, with ex-flame Diplo, “Bird Song (Diplo Remix)” emphasizes why the two worked so well together in the past, with their similar wavelength for beats and tempos harmonizing to perfection on this song.
The GENER8ION collaboration, “The New International Sound, Pt. 2” (which will make certain The Mighty Boosh enthusiasts think of “The New Sound”), is a mid-tempo track that suggests that M.I.A.’s insistence on retirement could be real as she pronounces, “Keep your fame and I’ll keep my faith.” This accent on the point that the trappings of being a musician–i.e. notoriety–are more trouble than they’re worth implies she could very well be done with communicating her thoughts through this medium.
“Swords,” which was featured in the video Matahdatah Scroll 01 “Broader Than A Border,” pertains to the constant fear not just refugees, but women, must live in, with a chorus that cautions, “Hands up if you hear a knock on the door.” At her most feministic, M.I.A. seeks to evoke a reaction with the description, “Loads of men can’t handle this ride/When will they know we’re best by their side?/They keep us down and we take it in stride/Throw up your head if you’ve still got light/World will know ’cause we just can’t hide.”
The feverishness of “Talk” again genuflects to M.I.A.’s earlier sound on Arular, with echoes of “Galang” once again present. Expressing pride for her enfant terrible ways, M.I.A. brags, “I talk and talk until I piss ’em off.” Her writerly tendencies are emblazoned when she threatens, “Gonna fight pen with my pen,” which, of course, means, no matter what critics say about her, she can always come back at them with more vitriolic rhymes.
“Platforms,” the final song on the deluxe version of the record, is the perfect way to slow things down on AIM, allowing listeners to germinate over what they’ve just heard. Rather than concluding with another refugee-infused offering, M.I.A. instead appeals to the problem with platforms a.k.a. social media, taunting, “Data mine my mind like a diamond in the rough.” She also makes note of the obscene wealth of those who spend their days making life even less tangible for others, singing, “The tech dudes are the only ones having a good day.” The theme of displacement, however, remains present, as M.I.A. clearly doesn’t feel like a true part of any of these “platforms” designed to keep people interconnected. And yet, as she says, “Maybe there’s glory in all the things I’m not.”
AIM is very much the refugee album, shedding light on the injustices of being displaced while also resonating with those who experience a more metaphorical exile. Layered with double meanings and symbolism, AIM is a comfort to anyone at odds with established borders, whether literal or, shall we say, more emblematic of the mind.