English rapper M.I.A. opens her latest — and reportedly final — album, AIM, with lines that are playful, defiant and unmistakably her own. "Freedom 'I'dom 'Me'dom/ Where's your 'We'dom?" she asks. "This world needs a brand new 'Re'dom" They announce M.I.A. plans to rap about what she covers best — politics, marginalization, disenfranchisement and the lives of people who experience it.
But, come the chorus, it's clear M.I.A. can't push herself to talk about life in the developing world and the refugee crisis with the same vim, vigor or even swag she used to. She raps:
"Borders — What's up with that? Politics — What's up with that? Police Shots — What's up with that? Identities — What's up with that? Your Privilege — What's up with that? Broke People — What's up with that?"
It sounds more like a certain '90s comedians' joke notebook than an actual chorus. The album never regains the momentum her opening should have produced. M.I.A. sounds tired, and for better or worse, AIM proves that a long break might be exactly what she needs.
M.I.A. predates any 2016 conceptions of the woke celebrity superstar. She burst onto the music scene with overtly political albums like 2005's Arular and 2007's Kala. On both, her intros set the tone and contained some of her most powerful invocations.
Arular's first full song "Pull Up the People" calls for those listening, and those not, to turn their eyes to those in the world living in abject poverty. Kala's opening track "Bamboo Banga" announced her return and, thusly, the return of issues affecting people in the global South — "Somalia, Angola, Ghana, Ghana, Ghana (hey!)/ India, Sri Lanka, Burma, bamboo banga (hey!)" — to the cultural forefront.
This same excitement and specificity that tinged the openings to her earliest works is almost absent on AIM. Now, taking a sonic victory lap after five albums, M.I.A. speaks in platitudes about the world and its issues, rather than specifics.
The album's second track "Go Off" has more of the kind of kinetic energy that one expects from M.I.A. However, while the song's beat can stand with some of M.I.A.'s best, her half-baked lyrics – "I'm on ten like men, even better then them/ Yeah I don't lose focus like a German called Sven" — might leave you wondering what M.I.A. has left to say, and whether she's still interested in making statements.
If the personal is the political, AIM fails because it feels so impersonal. Like a friend whose Instagram is filled with reposted inspirational quotes about fitness and health, AIM lacks the personality that colors in M.I.A.'s earlier works. Her best tracks — like "Paper Planes," "Bad Girls," or "Y.A.L.A." — have always been equal parts woke indictment and frenetic party track.
M.I.A.'s music has lost much of that energy, though it has gained a sense of peace. "Finally" sees the artist ruminate on and make peace with a decade of dealing with haters. "I'm free and I'm a freak," she raps. "All the people I love I try to keep/ We get deep/ Keep it street/ And were never gonna stay asleep."
"A.M.P. (All My People)" stands out because it blends street cred and lyricism with an rebelliousness that the rest of the album doesn't bother to cultivate. She raps:
"You can't Tupac me/ You can't Biggie me/ I've got a pikini with a bikini in Bequia/ They wanna stop me/ Galliano sack me/ I'll keep on coming back/ Like your freaking acne/ I am pro active/ Brand new perspective/ Back on a mac tip/ With matching red lipstick."
Unfortunately, it leads into the back half that feels like a long, contemplative outro to an album that never fully materialized. "Visa" and "Swords" will keep you listening, hoping the next track will bring that necessary urgency, but the cuts mostly get softer and shallower. A second mix of "Bird Song" transforms the song into an even more grating version than its already skippable original.
Top to bottom, AIM is a consummate victory lap, yet there are admittedly a lot of victories to celebrate. M.I.A. successfully blended a musical genre started by black and Latino Americans in the South Bronx with a South Asian flare filtered through an English sensibility to create a truly unique sound. She pushed wokeness into the mainstream and forced the entire world all to listen to a song about counterfeit visas because they thought it was about getting high.
But, seeing a runner run without the prospect of notching any new wins or blistering any new competition is not that exciting. Listening to AIM is to listen with memory — clapping for M.I.A.'s greatness and for the ways she changed the music game. But, applauding when her performance is so lackluster for so much of the album's runtime feels exhausting and undeserved.