Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s is AIM the alleged retirement album from M.I.A.
Look, rap retirement narratives, like in pro wrestling and boxing, are just that: narratives. A kid born when Jay-Z “retired” is on the verge of being a teen. A kid born when Hulk Hogan “retired” the first time can drink a beer.
So, consider me skeptical when M.I.A. says AIM is her “final” album, that she’s going to ride off into the multi-and-vividly colored sunset, retiring from rap to do whatever it is radical pop stars do when they’re retired. But can you blame her for wanting to hang it up? Can you name a musician drawing a major label advance that has been more misunderstood than Maya Arulpragasam?
She was written off at first by a sexist music press who saw her as secondary to Diplo when her first mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1 came out. She became the least likely rapper on Jimmy Iovine’s shelf before Kala, and he tried to force her to record with Timbaland before she ended up globetrotting to make her best album. A year later, she became an unlikely global popstar, when her song about dealing drugs on a burner became a song even your mom could do finger guns to. M.I.A. never recovered; she released M A Y A in 2010, an album that was unfairly maligned in a controversy sparked by her eating truffle fries supplied by a New York Times reporter as she talked about the revolutionary struggles of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan group she supports that has been accused of terrorism. M A Y A was in some ways the proto-Yeezus; an album that stretches the acceptable bounds of how popular rap should sound, while also finding the artist willfully burying themselves and their public persona. She released another album after that-- 2013’s Matangi—which came with sneakily her second biggest song ever, “Bad Girls,” the song that still slays every karaoke bar that has it. Her possible pop chart redemption with that track never got off the ground; she spent too much of the time around the release of Matangi dealing with the fallout from giving the world the finger during the Super Bowl.
So here she is on AIM, her alleged last album, claiming she’s ready to love, and stop hating. AIM is her least radical album, though that’s a function of her changing how mainstream music sounds as much as AIM’s straightforward sonics. When M.I.A. first appeared out of the U.K., her blending of eastern and western underground music was radical; it felt like it was from an unrealized future directed by Neill Blomkamp; it was hopeful, it was dystopian, it was worldly, it was claustrophobic. So when she pairs woozy Bhangra beats with a Michael Jackson-referencing chorus on “Ali R U OK” it doesn’t sound in 2016 like it did in 2006; there are multiple club DJs making music that sounds like this now, and that’s M.I.A.’s #impact.
Lyrically, AIM is aiming for something less than the anti-surveillance polemics that bolstered M A Y A or the struggle around the world tales of Kala. M.I.A. has said AIM is about “not hating,” which mostly translates into her just questioning the way identities of all kinds impact our lives (“Borders”), being friends (“Foreign Friend”), and finding metaphors for basically every bird (“Bird Song”). She struggles against keeping herself in check on “A.M.P.” and celebrates her own longevity on “Survivor.” Learning to let go, and being chill, are the main subjects of the album, which isn’t necessarily what you’d ever think of as the subject matter for an M.I.A. album. It peaks with “Freedun,” the collaboration with a never-better Zayn Malik, a song that features M.I.A. trash talking dinosaurs, and sounds like it takes place on a windswept cliff. It’s the most overtly pop song M.I.A. has attempted; and even makes you wonder if there would be a lane for her in this kind of music.
So where does that leave AIM? Is it M.I.A.’s “worst” album, as asserted in the Ringer? I mean, maybe, but that’s after four albums that, though they have flaws, are amongst the most interesting, beguiling, intriguing albums out this century. If this is really it, she leaves behind a stellar body of work, one that ran the full arc between musical revolutionary to musical elder statesman, surveying the idea of going all in again, and checking the fuck out.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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