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M.I.A.’s Queasy Retirement Party

Her new album is allegedly her last, and might be her worst

Facebook/Ringer illustration
Facebook/Ringer illustration

Let’s think hard for just 30 seconds about The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Great song! Biggest hit of 1987, in fact. You are involuntarily whistling the melody right now — a simple, bright, bratty Double Dutch taunt, lightweight and bulletproof. Pure pop and purer provocation. Everyone loves riffs like that; very few musicians can reliably deliver them. Is it a little weird that a band that looks like this had a smash hit called “Walk Like an Egyptian”? Probably! Let it go. We don’t have time.

That song’s goofy cameo is the sneak-attack highlight of Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1, the mashup-heavy 2004 mixtape that launched M.I.A.’s career. Born Maya Arulpragasam in London to Sri Lankan parents, she mutated from a filmmaker and visual artist into the sonically polyglot pop star the 21st century demanded, cloaked in vivid primary colors and stylized revolutionary ardor. Backed by her then-boyfriend and producer, the baile-funk-obsessed Diplo, Piracy fused hits from Madonna, Dead Prez, Missy Elliott, the Eurythmics, Salt-N-Pepa, and Jay Z to buoyant, skeletal, cheerfully confrontational original jams like the stuttering “Galang” and the Sanford and Son–fueled “URAQT,” each one driven by an insidious, mocking, undeniable earworm or three.

Sound familiar? “Walk Like an Egyptian” shows up early, bursting whole out of Maya’s own concussive “Fire Fire,” all three MTV-canonized verses simmering amid the shuddering bass and migraine-inducing drums. You get The Whistle, too, and that’s the moment the whole thing clicks, the righteous audacity of hijacking and reverse-colonizing something so ridiculous, so perfect, so Problematic. “Hijacking” is the wrong word, of course; her devotees and her detractors alike have struggled mightily to find the right one. So has she.

Thus began the most promising, fascinating, volatile, and colossally frustrating musical career of our young, dumb century. M.I.A.’s fifth studio album, Aim, is out tomorrow, and she’s threatening to make it her last; it’s definitely not her best record, and it definitely includes her worst-ever song. Moreover, the whole thing is oddly placid and sweet, “an album about not hating” emerging in the home stretch of the most ugly, tumultuous, and hateful year in recent American history. We are living in the sociopolitical dystopia she long foretold; it’s a super weird time for her to think positive. This is not how you’d want her to go out. But her not giving a fuck about what you want has always kinda been the point.

M.I.A.’s first two proper albums, 2005’s Arular (named for her father, and spiffing up all those Piracy Funds Terrorism Vol. 1 jams) and 2007’s denser, trippier Kala (named for her mother, and recorded in at least a half dozen countries due to pesky U.S. visa issues) are acknowledged classics now, or at least worth starting a fight over. The former has “10 Dollar,” a lithe and infectiously perverse cheerleader chant about teenage prostitutes; the latter has “20 Dollar,” a slurring, psychedelic alloy of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Her records are invariably noisy, chaotic, and destabilizing; the single greatest sound I’ve ever heard on one is her huge, breathy HAAAAHHHH’s before each chorus of “20 Dollar,” a singular combination of triumphant and exhausted.

By this point, she was unapologetically Going for It, superstardom-wise. Kala ends with “Come Around,” an awkward Timbaland collaboration that’s going OK until Tim starts rapping: “Baby girl, you and me / Need to go to yo’ teepee.” Yikes. This was never going to work. At least, not the conventional way. Because Kala’s hit single was hiding in plain sight.

The Clash-sampling, gunshot-borne “Paper Planes” didn’t truly go supernova until it showed up in the Pineapple Express trailer (the gunshots sync up beautifully), but who cares. Whatever it takes. She’d made it. This was happening. Here she is, scantily clad and extremely pregnant, doing “Paper Planes” onstage at the 2009 Grammys, before it morphs into “Swagga Like Us,” starring Jay Z, Kanye West, T.I., and Lil Wayne. It’s the last truly essential award-show performance by anyone, anywhere. You wouldn’t say she peaked here, exactly, but her willingness to tolerate music-industry bullshit certainly did.

The bizarre, disastrous rollout of 2010’s Maya is painful to recall, as typified by Lynn Hirschberg’s infamously vicious New York Times Magazine profile that painted M.I.A. as a clueless political poseur. Kill shot: “‘I kind of want to be an outsider,’ she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.” (It turns out Lynn ordered the truffle fries, but Maya had already forfeited any goodwill by tweeting out Lynn’s phone number.)

Does that sound dumb? Holy shit, it was incredibly dumb. But the fallout legitimately cast a pall over the record, a grouchy and self-sabotaged crossover attempt front-loaded with hilariously unpleasant bursts of industrial noise. Even the nominal singles were provocations: “Born Free” sampled Suicide and spawned a ridiculous exploding-redhead video, and “XXXO” is a queasy death-disco dirge with a chorus of “You want me be somebody who I’m really not.” Yeah, we got it. This album cycle ended in earnest when she flipped the bird onstage with Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl and got sued by the NFL for $16.6 million. Double yikes.

She was better off as a villain, obviously. By this point M.I.A. had long since fallen out with Diplo, who doesn’t come off any better in the truffle-fry piece. (His perspective on her early years: “Maya was into the whole terrorism gimmick at the time.”) But nonetheless, he got the megastar career — the Bieber collabs, the insanely lucrative DJ gigs, the celebrity feuds — that rightfully belonged to her. Her next album, 2013’s sprawling Matangi, is better than you remember — the luscious “Bad Girls” is an all-timer — but it’s also longer than you remember, and you’ve hopefully forgotten that it ends with a song called “Sexodus.”

So here we are. The retirement-threat record. It’s a time-honored phase, and not always an artist’s final one, but let’s take her at her word. Aim features lusher-than-usual production from friends old (longtime Baltimore cohort Blaqstarr) and new (Skrillex, whose sweet bombast suits her smoother, gauzier, more melodramatic vocal style these days). “Borders” kicks things off, and it’s certainly topical …

… but boy oh boy, does the “What’s up with that?” hook get old fast. “Bird Song” is a buzzing, off-kilter oddity that certainly commits to its premise — ”I’m robin this joint … sure ain’t a vulture … stay rich like an ostrich” — but to slightly less irritating ends. Plus it’s got a chorus of “Free up, my love,” which, if you squint, you can convince yourself to mishear as “FOIA, my love,” which is the platonic ideal of an M.I.A. line. (There’s a Diplo remix, too; he and M.I.A. have tentatively, musically reconciled.)

“Freedun” features some lovelorn, spectral cooing from Zayn, a legit international Muslim pop star who makes for good company, and while the result’s not exactly a slow-dance showstopper, you can picture the lane Maya’s trying to swerve into here. You can’t quite trust an M.I.A. song where she’s not hating at least a little bit, but you can learn to live with her newfound, apparently sincere urge to live and let live.

Unfortunately, she starts out that one by rapping, “I’m a swagger man / Rollin’ in my swagger van / From the People’s Republic of Swagistan.” Amid all the aural and interpersonal rubble, it’s easy to forget that M.I.A.’s jokes are usually mad corny. “Foreign Friend” is the aforementioned worst thing she’s ever done, a syrupy and plodding ode to tentative reconciliation that unloads one clunker after another after another:

She sounds like she’s auditioning for Flight of the Conchords. It’s unfortunate. The back half of Aim is less cringeworthy, but also less distinct: Grimes-esque electro-pop (“Finally”), throwback shit-talk (“A.M.P.”), direct nods to old songs (“Visa” is basically a “Galang” remix), etc. The jokes are still corny — “When I go Oh-man / I say Yeah-mon / I open a club and fill it strictly full of women” — but less exposed. Her lyrics are worse now, but not drastically so — it might just be that they’ve always required a certain amount of bravado to deliver, and she can’t quite muster it anymore. The total M.I.A. experience requires constant controversy and confrontation, and while she hasn’t abandoned that impulse entirely in 2016 — she reacted poorly to Black Lives Matter, for example — it’s doubtless awfully hard to sustain. Now more than ever, she sounds triumphant but exhausted, embattled but at peace. That a certain wizened resignation doesn’t suit her doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve it.

We end with “Survivor,” which is wistful and valedictory and lightweight, in keeping with Aim’s uneasy theme. But no one has fought more battles, or been willing to lose so much. So grant her this victory lap, even if it’s not quite the victory you’d hoped for. “Who said it was easy?” she croons, almost. “They can never stop me.” They certainly tried. You can’t blame her, if she chooses to finally stop herself.