I’m not sure M.I.A. has ever made a single album that’s great from start to finish. Her muse has too much wanderlust for that. Running freely can lead an artist to cross entirely new landscapes, but it can also result in a mad rush into a blind alley or two. It can also lead to a sort of artistic exhaustion, which isn’t quite what M.I.A. copped to in suggesting that AIM, her fifth full-length overall, will be her final album. Still, she’s said she’s ready to move onto other projects, and there are times when AIM betrays a sense that she’s growing restless. Even the album’s title was a alternative choice within the bucket of fan-sourced options for her prior release, Matangi. M.I.A. is mopping up rather than drafting new plans. Sometimes wanderlust can take a performer far enough that there’s no longer a microphone within reach.
AIM doesn’t particularly feel valedictory, but it does have a quality of militancy softening into maturity, which itself suggests completion of a process. It can play like M.I.A., wobbly but triumphant, crossing a line to pass the baton. She’s said plenty. Someone else raise your voice. Occasionally a track (“Bird Song,” “Fly Pirate”) sounds like little more than a sonic notion repeated enough to reach a runtime that justifies placement on the album. Overall, though, the album is rife with the characteristic wild laying that can induce a blissful vertigo. Rhythms interlock like chain link and style gently plucked from around the globe zip in and out like fireflies slaloming down the expanse. The music is more relaxed, which does mean it’s less dense.
Though M.I.A. isn’t striking as hard, she isn’t standing down. On the single “Go Off,” she intones, “I’m gonna talk and you gonna listen,” and that confidence prevails across the album. In a shift from prior efforts, her fearless expression often manifests as a statement of personal identity more than a provocation. M.I.A. touches on her own experience as a child moved from war-torn Sri Lanka to London in the song “Foreign Friend”: “I said as a refugee, you know/ Where we come from, we get out our tent/ Then we climb over the fence/ We don’t wanna cause an offense.” part of the goal of the album, according to M.I.A. is to open up a bit, showing a different side of her creative being. Revelation can burst forth fromstudio dazzle, but it can also arrive more stealthily, through the comparative murmur of intimacy. For an artist who’s never been short of theses, this is a new and welcome one.
Maybe this is the final M.I.A. album. Then again, maybe it’s not. The history of pop music is filled with artists who claimed they were walking away from it all only to grind out a small fleet of additional material when boredom or creditors started tugging at their guitar straps. More than that, even as she evolves and slows, there’s a lingering certainty that she has more to say, that she’ll always have more to say. As I noted, AIM isn’t defined by its supposed finality. It’s only another step, or maybe a breather before the next sprint. If nothing else, the feeling of solidarity M.I.A. inspires will last. In one of the album’s clearest declarations of purpose, the closer “Survivor,” the expansiveness of the lyrics is telling. M.I.A. declares, “Who said it was easy?/ They can never stop we.” Damn right.