“Borders, what’s up with that?” asks Sri Lankan musician M.I.A. in the lead track “Borders.” Unfortunately, on her latest studio album, we never get a clear answer. AIM lacks a distinct target, and the final result misses the mark. Compared with previous hits “Sunshowers” and “Paper Planes” that propelled M.I.A’s message into the mainstream with their oblique beats and lyrics, AIM’s tracks are mediocre.
The album’s limitations are all the more regrettable considering that M.I.A.’s past achievements give her unique potential and force within the pop music industry. While her fifth album hardly represents her legacy, it’s an odd choice for what she claims will be her final studio release. Throughout, M.I.A.’s lyrics vary from lackadaisical—“See the sea / do the boat / do the jump / jump rope,” on “Fly Pirate”— to nonsensical—“Where’s your chicken at? / I’m watching like a hawk / I need more birds! / Gully like a seagull,” spoken over a kazoo instrumental on “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix).”
The production on AIM is full of hits and misses. About half of the beats on the standard release, including “Borders,” “Foreign Friend,” “Ali r u ok,” and “Visa,” are excitingly original world music bangers. Others, like “Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix)” and “Jump In,” require patience to listen to in their entirety.
As always, M.I.A. is having fun the whole time, but AIM’s lyrics are lazier than usual. Authenticity and experimentation have always been two of M.I.A.’s strong suits, and occasional bombs are a natural consequence of deviating from safe, formulaic pop. M.I.A. has navigated this space for a while—even at her best on early releases, Arular and Kala—so it’s strange that on AIM she doesn’t demonstrate anything she’s learned from past risks.
It’s very possible that M.I.A. isn’t aiming to please this time around, and that AIM is more for fun, for herself, or both. Still, from someone who is as 'woke' as she presents herself, it’s reasonable to expect a more definitive statement from her final LP. Musically, AIM has its inspired moments, but doesn’t progress far beyond M.I.A’s admittedly well-carved sonic lane.
Politically, she fails to say anything more interesting than her stream of controversies over the last few years, including an April 2016 statement questioning Black Lives Matter in the Evening Standard and the accompanying tweet “A#blacklivesmatter B#Muslimlivesmatter [….] It's how u can say A not B right now in 2016.”
With AIM as her soapbox, she has the attention of international music fans and nearly 40 minutes of time. It’s disappointing that 140 characters have caused more of a stir.