Last year, M.I.A.’s “Borders” single arrived amid a swelling Syrian refugee crisis and a global climate that was increasingly swept up by reactionary nationalism. Through a stylized depiction of a phalanx of young migrant men scaling chain-link fences, dodging barbed wire, and standing (though sometimes sitting and lying) across refugee boats, the music video for the song gives expression to the plight of disenfranchised people fleeing warzones. Brimming with sarcastic lyrics (“Boat people/What’s up with that?”) that lampoon the threat perceived by people who see “refugee” as a dirty word, “Borders” was reportedly the catalyst that M.I.A., a former refugee herself, used to write her album. And yet, despite the heavy subject matter, the London-based rapper has insisted AIM is her “happy” album.
While “Borders,” AIM’s opening track, encapsulates M.I.A.’s trademark blend of braggadocio and global commentary, both seem blunted throughout the rest of the album. A focus on borders and refugees abound through even the lighter tracks, but often for what seems like little purpose. In “Bird Song,” which features kazoo-like effects cawing absurdly throughout a flock of avian puns, M.I.A. shoehorns in a reference to drones. The dizzying multi-tracked vocals of “Jump In” sound aimless until they home in on the theme of crossing a border to achieve one’s dreams, even if it means the song’s narrator has to “hit the sea like Noah’s ark illegal.” Aliens and refugees are name-checked again in “Freedun,” mere bars away from references to Lara Croft and jokey lines like “the people’s republic of swagger-stan.”
While this type of juxtaposition of the heavy with the cheeky has been M.I.A.’s m.o. throughout her nearly 15-year career, AIM is less emphatic and coherent than many of the singer’s previous musical provocations. M.I.A. imbues the album with so much sarcasm that it’s difficult to tell when she’s truly being serious, which becomes a problem when she so often invokes grave issues such as asylum seekers, xenophobia, and gun violence. “Foreign Friend” attempts to pair immigrant stereotypes with trite expressions of friendship like “Break bread, watch Breaking Bad/Always there when I break up bad,” and this clumsy earnestness blended with satire yields mottled results. Throughout, there’s also a sense of going back to the well; “Visa” even samples her early hit “Galang” amid Mexican border-patrol imagery, and it calls back several times to 2013’s YOLO antidote “Y.A.L.A.”
Despite these relative disappointments, especially for an artist who’s declaring an end to her recording career at a time when the global climate is more than primed for her choice of subject matter, much of the music here remains radio-friendly and club-ready. “Borders” bounces with a full-bodied trap beat, and the repetition of the line “What’s up with that?” makes for an infectious hook. “Go Off,” produced by Skrillex and Blaqstarr, incorporates hand percussion and a world music-dancehall mash-up beat that suggests a throwback to Kala, while “Fly Pirate” goes far sparser, with abrasive metallic effects and a simple but propulsive low-end.
After the self-described “babies, death, destruction, and powerlessness” themes on 2010’s Maya, M.I.A. shifted away from politics to Hindu influences on Matangi, and AIM finds her splitting the difference by returning to half-hearted social consciousness. From an artist whose past work has stoked controversy and even caused her to receive death threats, AIM finds M.I.A. content to simply make an album, not craft a definitive statement to punctuate her career. Her focus on borders not only echoes a world increasingly obsessed with them, but also the liminal status of her own creative life, one where she’s routinely pushed boundaries as a recording artist, but now finds herself crossing over into new endeavors. On “Finally,” she declares that, at last, “What haters say about me don’t worry me.” Regardless of AIM’s shortcomings, M.I.A. has made the album she wants to make, with the swagger to contend that we can simply take it or leave it.