It puts you on edge, the rows on rows of bedraggled refugees crammed onto a raft, unmoving, zombie-like, swaying with the crash of waves below. She looks out at you from their midst, the rebel-chic costume setting her apart — M.I.A. is back again, aiming to shock, to hit you where it hurts.
The music video for “Borders,” the first song on M.I.A.’s new studio album AIM, opens on those stark images — refugees on boats, refugees scaling border fences in the desert, a demented keeling in the background of the beat. The blatant representation of refugee desperation sparked immediate controversy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with M.I.A. In TV interviews, she showed particular glee in reminding the world that she is part of this story too — as a child, she fled civil war in her native Sri Lanka to settle in London. The plight of dislocated people currently being turned away at borders across the West is close to her heart — and being M.I.A., she’s goddamn well going to say something about it.
But what exactly does she have to say? As she chants repetitively on the track, “Borders, what’s up with that? Politics, what’s up with that? Your privilege, what’s up with that?” If she’s speechless at the madness that has filled the headlines of the last few years, at least we can all sympathize. But as far as sociopolitical commentary, it doesn’t cut too deep—and the revolutionary slogans she’s spouting, like “fuck ’em when they say we’re not with them,” are old standbys for her, as is the vaguely South Asian-flavored trap beat. Nothing new here.
What M.I.A. once brought to the table was a savant ability to stun with her otherworldly approach to making pop music — an approach that felt distinctly new, and devilishly well-suited to a globalizing music scene. Through some uncanny mid-2000s Internet alchemy, she managed to cross-breed the energetic melodies of South Asian pop and world music with vague revolutionary politics and the cartoonish charm of gangsta rap — all delivered in a perfect punk-chic pose that eluded easy comprehension, but made just enough sense to be fun.
Now she makes only too much sense. We’ve seen this before: an artist past her prime, recycling the same old formulas. Once ingenious, her whole approach—the cheeky singsong raps about sex and politics, the squealing dancehall-synths and clever samples with Eastern traditional flourishes — seems to be softening into cliché, through some mixture of overuse and, dare I say it, laziness?
Maybe some blame lies with the radical changes in the music landscape since she found her first successes with the feral Arula and the ultra-cool cosmopolitan smorgasbord of Kala, with its Clash-sampling, Glock-popping viral single, the smirking, shamelessly ubiquitous “Paper Planes.” If she has been hopelessly outpaced, it’s partly because of the impact of the genre-bending fuck-it-all attitude she helped popularize.
Still, it’s hard not to think that her moment — that fame-grabbing fullest expression of her genius — faded a long time ago.
That’s not to say this record is without its charms. At times, M.I.A. displays flashes of an old sly, subversive sense of humor that has characterized much of her work and persona. Some of her most ridiculous lines land so comically, I laughed out loud while listening, like the opening rhymes on ZAYN-collab “Freedun” — “I’m a swagga man/rollin’ in my swagga van/from the People’s Republic of Swaggistan.” As always, it’s a kick to see her to embrace, distort, and finally make light absurdity out of the little postures and clichés that litter our culture. “Freedun,” though, then almost totally discards that kind of humor, as M.I.A. croons absentmindedly over a sugary pixel-beat she just happens to share with former One Direction member Zayn Malik—at least I think it’s Zayn; that’s the name on the track. You can’t make out too clear of a voice in his indistinct pop-cloud contribution, but it feels ends up feeling unnaturally grafted onto the song, turning a potential hit into something middling and unbalanced.
We do actually see her make moves in eclectic directions on this album — though the tendency seems to be pushing different past ideas into extreme, blippy exaggerations of those styles — with very scattered results. For example, “The New International Sound Pt. 2” featuring GENER8ION is mesmerizing pop that goes bland a couple minutes in. Meanwhile, the glittering “stay-true” confessional song “Survivor” startles with the intensity of its feeling, but blurs into computerized flatness around the edges. I occasionally had this sense that a little more polish (or less, in some cases) would have made a world of difference on so many of these tracks.
When there is a little polish and a sleeker, tougher arrangement, M.I.A.’s sense of rhythm can still be chilling, and chillingly catchy. “A.M.P. (All My People)” is a particularly strong offering, a call for unity with a militaristic rattle, not unlike the hypnotic, pitched-up snap of “Go Off,” the track right after “Borders.” “Tell your children I came from London,” she sneers, reminding us of the outsider status she has never quite relinquished — as an immigrant in the Western world, as a woman of color trying to make it creatively, as the quintessential rebel of the Internet. She can still captivate, but those moments of brilliance have become the exception rather than the rule, and for an artist who once boldly rode the forefront of global music, that’s a shame.