Album review: Is AIM the final outing for MIA?

This, her fifth album, would be a suitably eclectic, erratic finale – and the manner in which it emerged certainly suggests an artist thinking far beyond the music business.
AIM, the latest release by MIA. Interscope records via AP Photo
AIM, the latest release by MIA. Interscope records via AP Photo

AIM

MIA

(Polydor)

Three stars

Is anything taken less seriously than a pop star announcing his or her retirement? From the many “final” concerts by Sinatra to the premature declarations from Eminem, Jay Z and Justin Bieber, the comfy slippers rarely remain on their feet for long.

When MIA announced that AIM would be her final album, however, her words carried more weight.

Fourteen years into her recording career, Maya Arulpragasam remains an underrated influence on the modern pop landscape, as infamous for her image and issue-raising as for her music. This, her fifth album, would be a suitably eclectic, erratic finale – and the manner in which it emerged certainly suggests an artist thinking far beyond the music business.

First, she threatened to leak the album for free after a label dispute, and several tracks appeared online. Then she settled on a more traditional release, accompanied by a powerful statement from scholar Sinthujan Varatharajah – who, like the singer, is from a displaced Tamil family – about attitudes to ­refugees.

Such issues have always fuelled MIA’s work, but AIM is a curious mix, addressing heavy themes but with little of her earlier ferocity – it could at times be a children’s album, if not for the expletives.

Visa, for example, featured a sample from The Lion King when released online – but even without this, it is still a curious mix of topic and tone: “At the border I see the patroller, cruising past in a car. Hiding in my Toyota Corolla, everybody say YALA” – the last word of the song being the title of an earlier MIA song.

She replaces the Disney Lion King sample with a chant from her first single, Galang – an easier option, or an apt coda for her recording career? Time will tell.

The opening track, Borders, also sounds tame when stripped of the accompanying video she self-directed last year, in which she appeared among refugees.

MIA was an early adopter of the multi-producer approach, and several contribute here – with variable results. The Skrillex-­produced Go Off is an oppressive, exotic highlight.

Blaqstarr mixed the bizarre migration-themed, painfully twee Bird Song – “Rich like an ostrich,” MIA rhymes, randomly – although Diplo’s bonus-track rework is heftier.

Vocally, dance-hall star Dexta Daps brings an edge to another refugee anthem, Foreign Friend, but greater gravitas comes from a teen idol. Freedun is enhanced by a glorious chorus from former One Direction heart-throb Zayn Malick, as MIA explains her position. “Got my own little mission,” she sings, “it grew bigger than a politician.”

Now there’s a thought: “Vote MIA” next? Stranger candidates are out there.

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: September 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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