The power of a name should never be underestimated. Mathangi Arulpragasam has won awards and received waves of critical acclaim for over a decade. Mathangi Arulpragasam’s face was on every US newspaper after putting her middle finger up at the Super Bowl. Music, art, and culture since the mid-2000s has been shaped out of Mathangi Arulpragasam’s hands, but it is through the name M.I.A. that we came to know her. And now, with the release of her fifth album AIM, Arulpragasam will no longer be missing in action. She is retiring from the music industry – for now, at least – with one final curtain call.
AIM is constructed from the bone marrow of M.I.A.’s earlier albums, and out of these bodies she’s made something new that boomerangs right back to the start. This ability, to be constantly straddling ideas that seem completely opposed to each other, is what made her image so unique 12 years ago. She was vivid, bright, digital, innovative. And she still is now. AIM is not her strongest release – that would be 2013’s Matangi – but it is a fitting resolution.
It’s a bittersweet album, but it always would be. Before Arulpragasam released Borders, the lead single, she’d made it quite clear that her fifth album would be her last. Well, for now. The musical story of M.I.A. makes its curtain call with beginnings. She’s always been controversial for her engagement with politics, but AIM feels personal, like Arulpragasam’s finishing the story she started to tell with Matangi. The music is more refined, every sample feels deliberate, every lyrical reference to her earlier work resonant. Of course, it’s not just a personal album. Lyrically, it explores immigration and being a refugee, both from her own experience and on a bigger scale. People tittered when the video for Borders was released, featuring hundreds of refugees and Arulpragasam in a Paris Saint-Germain shirt that read ‘Fly Pirates’, but I hope they listened to it too, because it’s a great song.
Any potential controversy aside, AIM is a solid album. The only song that really misses the mark for me is Bird Song, which bangs in as the fourth track, messy and loud after a softer start to the album. But songs like Go Off (produced by Skrillex) and Visa make up for any weaknesses in the album. Really though, for me the album could be 12 repeats of Freedun (featuring Zayn), and I’d still want to listen to again once I’d finished it. It’s caramel smooth, and Zayn’s sweet voice contrasts perfectly with Arulpragasam’s style.
The context of the album, drawing from Arulpragasam’s childhood between England, Sri Lanka, and India, comes through and gives the album weight. It’s not just her beginnings that become important in AIM, but her musical ones too. After personal and professional separation from Diplo in 2008, Arulpragasam did as much as she could to distance herself from him and renounced much of the work they did together. However, he’s back again on the credits of AIM. This too, seems final, like she’s attempting to have a go at everything, once more with feeling.
It’s not perfect, and it could be better paced, but it’s very good. Hopefully M.I.A.’s retirement will be short lived, and next time she can get it completely right. If not, if this is her last album, it’s still a fitting end to her musical career.