M.I.A. | A.I.M. (Interscope/Polydor)

The album artwork itself shows this lack of energy, as it’s the only cover of hers that’s not an abrasive assault on the eyes.

mia

One of the most provocative artists this century is British/Sri Lankan hip-hop artist M.I.A. In the last decade, M.I.A.’s not been shy in causing controversy, not necessarily just toward other artists, but politicians, social media, and journalists, too. Her eclectic fashion sense paired with her off-the-wall musical style and persona in the mid-2000s paved the way for other eccentric female musicians to start breaking their way into the mainstream not long after (e.g., Lady Gaga, Sia, Nicki Minaj, etc.). In this reviewer’s opinion, I thought she might’ve been the next Björk, albeit more abrasive, noise, and hip-hop based. Now in 2016, with the release of A.I.M., M.I.A. claims this album will be her last (yeah, OK).

Starting off the album, “Borders” shows that, despite M.I.A.’s announcement of retirement, that doesn’t mean she’s ready to stop calling out things she views wrong with society at large. However, in just this opening track alone, we’re running into a major problem prevalent throughout all of A.I.M., and that is a lack of energy. To backtrack a second, all of M.I.A.’s previous albums open with a sense of urgency that establishes the mood early on (e.g., listen to “Karmageddon,” “The Message,” “Bamboo Banga,” and “Pull Up the People”). This urgency simply isn’t found here. On previous albums, even if a song was a miss, at the very least there was still energy and a reason for it.

The first track that really feels new and not derivative of her previous albums is the stripped-down “Jump In.” M.I.A.’s vocals set to a minimal drum beat feels eerie and panicked, and almost captures the urgency of her best work. Following “Jump In,” we get her attempt at pop, which actually isn’t that bad. However, these tracks still lack energy, and neither Dexta Daps or ZAYN, formerly of One Direction, can save that. It’s a shame this is the case, as “Freedun,” “Foreign Friend,” and “Finally” all have the potential to be big hits, but they lack the drive to do so.

A possible cause for this lack of energy is that some of the songs don’t feel fully thought out. They lack the bombastic nature for which M.I.A.’s previous work is known. She experiments with new sounds on songs like “Visa” (which contains a sample of M.I.A.’s own “Galang”) and “Fly Pirate,” but it feels like there could be more to those songs. Even with charming pop numbers “Survivor” and “Finally,” there’s something missing to make the songs go above and beyond. Head banger “Swords” just doesn’t work, either, as it’s surrounded by music that’s not as fully recognized. On the tracks where M.I.A. does get more high energy (“Talk,” “A.M.P.,” and “Go Off”), she sounds like she’s not particularly invested. Part of this lull can possibly be that nothing here feel particularly new from M.I.A, pop numbers included. Even on 2010’s lukewarm-received ɅɅɅYɅ, the sounds were at least new and a step forward.

Maybe there’s another issue at play here, and it’s that M.I.A. is tired. Having a career of calling out and working against injustice and racism gets tiring, and after a decade of controversy, it’s hard to not become burned out and jaded (as she hints on the track “Survivor”). Perhaps this is a factor in M.I.A.’s supposed retirement (and possibly running out of ways to have her album titles be a play off her name). In a way, the album artwork itself shows this lack of energy, as it’s the only cover of hers that’s not an abrasive assault on the eyes. If M.I.A. intended to end her career on bang, that’s not what she achieved here. However, this album seems to be more of a current state of mind for the artist, and although it shows her being burned out, but still oddly hopeful. Individually, there’s some decent and interesting tracks on this collection, but as a whole, don’t expect A.I.M. to be the exciting raging party previous albums were. C- | Michael Cheng

Key tracks: “Jump In,” “Finally,” “Visa,” “A.M.P. (All My People),” “Swords”

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