The British-Tamil singer-producer M.I.A. has existed at a few pop-cultural crossroads since bursting into the pop world with the urgent, chanting “Galang” in 2004. A savvy anticipator of horizon-dwelling pop trends, she also has a keen ability to adapt current radio mores in her own image — one that’s savvy yet passionate, worldly yet hungry, and constantly looking out for answers.
So it makes sense that her fifth album, “AIM,” is explicitly about the experience of people living on the world’s borders. Musically, she presents a heightened-pulse version of the minor-key anomie currently dominating pop radio in the United States and around the world, one that plucks its influences from musics all around the globe. The haze of “Foreign Friends” is sliced by Jamaican singer Dexta Daps’s wrenching chorus, which only accentuates the outsider tales M.I.A. is matter-of-factly recounting. The mood can be a little bit tough to crack at first, particularly when contrasted with M.I.A.’s previous work, although it makes sense when you consider how relatively extroverted pop was even three years ago, when she released the brash “Matangi.”
M.I.A.’s lyrics reflect the confusion brought about by today’s always-on chaos. “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?” M.I.A. reels off over the dizzying beat of opening track “Borders.” The cavernous “Freedun” features former One Direction member Zayn Malik on its mournful chorus, but M.I.A. whirls around her duet partner, declaring herself “a swagger-man . . . from the people’s republic of swagger-stan.”
M.I.A.’s personal-as-political ideology can be traced to hip-hop battles, where centering on oneself is seen as a radical act in the face of uncaring systems. On “Ola No Visa,” she calls back to her debut album while reframing the triumphant “ya, ya, heyyyy” of her breakthrough “Galang,” and her lyrics are peppered with braggadocio. Which isn’t to say that vulnerabilities don’t creep in; “When I see that dream, I gon make it mine,” she intones over the skeletal beat of “Jump In.” That the word “mine” is glitched out of the line upon its repetition only heightens the tension that M.I.A. is trying to portray on “AIM,” a world-weary yet ultimately optimistic statement about the power people may not even know they possess.
ESSENTIAL “Freedun”Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.