M.I.A.’s fifth album arrives with the usual mix of bumps, bruises and bravura. In June she was dropped from the line-up of London’s Afropunk Fest after making controversial comments about the Black Lives Matter movement; then last month she claimed her label was refusing to “clear” ‘Bird Song’, her first collaboration since 2010 with her former producer and ex-boyfriend Diplo. The track now appears on ‘AIM’’s Deluxe Edition.
Meanwhile M.I.A., AKA Mathangi Arulpragasam, has said that although she’ll probably continue to “put music out”, she thinks ‘AIM’ could be her last album. So it’s slightly surprising to find that it contains some of her most relaxed and reflective work. ’Survivor’ is a stylish synthpop glide; ‘Freedun’ features a beautifully woozy chorus sung by Zayn Malik (in a way, the M.I.A. of One Direction); and ‘Finally’ has her rapping about ignoring the haters over something close to a tropical house beat.
Since she debuted with 2005’s ‘Arular’, M.I.A. has built a reputation for writing provocatively about global politics, but ‘Ali R U OK’, a bhangra-pop jam inspired by a ride with an overworked Uber driver, shows she can also do smaller-scale human empathy.
None of this means M.I.A. has gone soft. Her music’s fusion of (mostly) fresh hip-hop beats and globally sourced sounds (an old Tamil movie soundtrack on ‘Bird Song’; what sounds like an Australian wobbleboard on ‘Fly Pirate’) can be abrasive even when it’s catchy.
As track titles like ‘Borders’, ‘Visa’ and ‘Fly Pirate’ suggest, injustice and immigration are recurring themes here. Critics will say casually delivered lines like “Borders, what’s up with that?” are hardly brimming with insight, but M.I.A.’s wit and inventiveness compensate for her sometimes shallow sloganeering. When she rhymes “Devon” with “Yemen” on ‘A.M.P. (All My People)’, or says she’s from “the People’s Republic of Swag-istan” on ‘Freedun’, it’s a welcome reminder that there’s no other artist quite like her.
It’s always best to take what M.I.A. says with a pinch of salt bigger than the NHS would recommend but if ‘AIM’ really is her last album, it feels like a fitting parting shot.