Monday, September 19, 2016

album review: 'AIM' by m.i.a

So let me put forward something with the benefit of some hindsight: could it be that M.I.A. was never that great of an artist?

Harsh charge to make, especially coming from someone who has never been all that fond of M.I.A., but let me make my case. Even when she burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s with her eclectic blend of choppy Afrobeat, hip hop, and raw provocation, I wasn't much of a fan, but I got the punk appeal. Jagged, explosive, not especially nuanced in her politics but loaded with enough potent sloganeering that she was hard to ignore, both Arular and KALA weren't really my thing but I could appreciate that she had her audience. Then MAYA happened... And here's the thing, I've heard a lot of people say that if it were released nowadays where noise rap is more prevalent, it'd get a better reception... but having gotten onboard with that genre in recent years and revisited that record, it really is as messy, shallow, and migraine-inducing as you'd remember - just because you're the first to the sound doesn't mean you did it best. She followed it in 2013 with Matangi, which I actually reviewed in full, and upon retrospect, I may have actually been too kind to it. I didn't like MAYA, but it at least felt like it was trying - when Matangi wasn't irritating the piss out of me with its sloppy misunderstandings of technology and politics and some painfully trite writing, it was just tedious, not helped by a laconic delivery which did nothing for any populism or melody the record half-heartedly tried to create.

But going into this reportedly final record, where even self-professed M.I.A fans were a little reticent, I started to wonder what it was M.I.A will have left behind. Of her five records, I'd only say two were close to good, and while I appreciate the embrace of rougher, noisier African-inspired textures in hip hop, M.I.A wasn't the only one to introduce those sounds. And fifty percent is not a winning or even passing record, so is AIM the album to tilt the scales in her favour?

Well, no - but in retrospect, I'm not even surprised. Forget her public persona and media antics - if anything, they confirm way too much of what I already suspected in her music - the public and critical reaction to AIM has been mixed at best and outright panned at worst. And I can't help but feel a certain amount of vindication as to why: yeah, I don't like AIM either, but it's not like the problems here aren't on her previous records either. They're just more audible, to the point when even M.I.A. fans can't really defend this in the same way, especially in comparison with her best. I'm not going to say 'I told you so', but I am going to say 'what took you all so long'?

And look, I'm going to apologize right now if this comes off as smug - if you liked her previous albums and have been watching the steady decline with real disappointment, I feel for that, especially when you get the uneasy impression that M.I.A. is lazily strip-mining past accomplishments to compensate for no real ideas. It's most obvious on 'Visa', a song where she not only samples her own song 'Galang' but also fills it up with references to her previous records for a bragging that actually might be one of the better songs on the album simply because it reminds us of better times. Hell, the majority of this record feels like I'm hearing the cliffnotes of what M.I.A has done in the past and done better, with too many songs trailing off after a verse or two, with no real finish or anything beyond a heavily autotuned crooning outro. And for the record, Autotune is a really bad choice for any M.I.A. vocals - I don't like her lazy, borderline capricious drawl that seems barely capable of conveying investment in anything, but when you slap on effects to force things on tune the feelings get even worse! And that's before she gets Zayn on 'Freedun', who is unrecognizable behind a pileup of filters, or the fact that so many of her own vocal pickups feel sloppily layered or compressed to the point of peaking.

And that's before we get to the production on this mess. Here's the thing: it's not M.I.A.'s fault that the rest of the industry particularly in 2016 likes tropical-sounding clattering beats with contorting synth lines, for the most part she was there first. But you would think that having brought that sound to modern pop and hip-hop that she'd be able to do more with it than the pale facsimiles of 'bangers' that we get here! I actually don't mind some of the trap snares and synths on 'Borders' - minus the chipmunk vocals, of course, which make their infuriating return on 'Finally' - but it also reminds me that I could hear this instrumental dime a dozen any single week on Billboard BREAKDOWN. It's not her fault DJ Snake basically already made her song 'Go Off' better a month or so ago - but again, he's doing it better. Skrillex actually does show up to make the annoyance of 'A.M.P.' all the more palpable in the squonking pitch-shifted layers, but when I discovered the song actually was a leftover fragment from the Matangi recording sessions, I wasn't even surprised - there are a few tracks that feel like leftovers from that recording. What startles me is that in the three years since that album M.I.A. didn't refine some of these songs or make them feel less unfinished. 'Jump In' is basically a sloppily layered vocal round, a tactic that shows up later on the more harshly mechanical 'Fly Pirate', which doesn't so much evolve but fall apart after a verse onto the sparse beat. The absolute worst example is 'Bird Song (Blaqstarr Remix)', which features an overload of kazoos and squawking with a painfully thin guitar trying to carry some sort of groove where M.I.A. cycles through a list of painfully forced bird references - okay concept, terrible execution.

Granted, if we were to look at the area where things consistently went wrong the most on this album, it would be in the content. And the list of bad lines, folks... 'stay rich like an ostrich'? 'The people's republic of Swaggistan'? 'Creeping around in your socks and slippers while Mexicans say 'Hola!' - not very good creeping, in my books. A smack against Instagram models on the opening lines of 'Fly Pirate' when just a few songs earlier you were referencing brand names like MAC on 'A.M.P.', which operates on the same commercial principle. Granted, if we were to open up the file on M.I.A. and hypocrisy we'd be here all day, but of course it gets worse when she tries to get more political. Opening song 'Borders' tries to speak on the refugee crisis and how its getting drowned out in the media saturation, but a.) the topic certainly isn't if you go to any place in Europe, where it's placing real visible strain on the EU, and b.) by placing it in juxtaposition with so many other topics which you even further trivialize with the vapid, 'what's up with that', you're doing the exact same thing! It gets even more exasperating on 'Foreign Friend' - I think this song is trying to be ironic, showing how people emigrate to western nations to escape oppression only to find themselves tokenized, but with Dexta Dapps overselling the hook and M.I.A. seeming to play the friendship mostly straight for three verses, it feels too thin and shallow to connect. But then again, this is an album that professes its depth but on the self-esteem anthem 'Survivors' epitomizes its struggle with a fire emoji. But that highlights the great issues with this album: even if M.I.A. has admitted she's not looking to tackle as many heavy themes as before, her repeated references to Lara Croft (especially in her modern incarnation) seem to reinforce that M.I.A. sees herself as a survivor, tirelessly struggling on her own against the system. The problem is that her self-perception is woefully out of touch with reality, both on and off record, and nowhere is that proven more than the best song here: 'Ali r u ok?' Now I'm not wild about the production: the fast-paced Indian groove isn't really my thing, but it's propulsive, it has real melody, and it does capture the overworked stress of an immigrant struggling as an uber driver to provide for his family - relevant because M.I.A is not writing about herself and thus builds some distance to speak from a real underdog perspective.

But again, none of this surprises me. The laconic vocals, the borderline-vapid approach to bragging and social commentary, the clattering, choppily layered beats, this has been M.I.A.'s trademark for years - if anything, AIM reveals that there's a very fine line to doing it well. For me... well, this is an artist who insults someone's acne and compares herself to Pro-Activ, a sterile, borderline functional product once hawked by Adam Levine and Justin Bieber over half a decade ago. To me, she's a lot more like Accutane - works for some people, but dries everything up and for some triggers depression and suicidal thoughts. In other words, 4/10, no recommendation, and if this is the note she wants to go out on, it's definitely a weak one. Skip it.

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