Arular, M.I.A.’s 2004 debut record of bizarre, glitchy, intercontinental hip-hop, was an unlikely sensation. Since then, she’s managed to piss off just about everyone worth pissing off, even bringing the NFL to its knees. They hate her, of course, because she always wins. Even Madonna couldn’t figure out how to not be upstaged by her.
Now, she hints, she’s retiring (again) from the music-go-round. Her new album, apparently, will be her last. Always a master of language, she’s decisively titled it AIM. (You’re free to sort out the double entendre as you wish.)
As it says on the package, there’s a lot of aiming going on, and most of the targets are hit—only now she’s firing armistices instead of bullets. The haunted anthem “Borders” opens, and then she comes representing peace and bearing wisdom on “Go Off”: “Check up on your messages / Know what the message is” she implores, suggesting that maybe, “You got it wrong.”
She also wastes little time—back on “Borders”—in proffering what reads like a final M.I.A. manifesto: “Your values, what’s up with that? / Your beliefs, what’s up with that? / Your families, what’s up with that?”
Ignoring the questions is not an option, surely.
Virtually every version of M.I.A. we’ve come to know over these dozen years makes an appearance here. “Bird Song,” a masterpiece of onomatopoeia, lets her get her cuckoo on. She compares herself to an ostrich, a parrot, a hawk, and a falcon—“I need more birds,” she worries aloud—and warns that she’s “hummin’ higher than a drone.”
“Freedun,” a calmer few minutes of elegant R&B sultriness, reminds what a way she has with a pretty and seductive tune. But the statements of intent keep on coming: “I’ve just got my own little mission... History is just a competition.”
The smart self-referentialism peaks on “Visa,” which grabs the beat from her debut single “Galang” and piles on those powerful “ya ya hey” calls to arms. She adds a chilling, alarm-blare piano, sneering, “At the border I see the patroller / Cruising past in their car / Creeping in my socks and slippah / Mexicans say, ‘Hola’!”
Sure, AIM is overlong, and it lags in the middle. But then the widescreen, august synth-strings of closer “Survivor” kick in, with Ms. Arulpragasam proudly recalling her “time in the fire” and coming to the only conclusion she ever possibly could have: “They can never stop we.”
Care to disagree?