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M.I.A.
AIM Tara Joshi , October 10th, 2016 07:05

Welcome to Brexit Britain, a country where racial prejudice has been all but legitimised. It’s a regressive place where proposals to make firms list foreign workers have recently been under consideration; where last week Prime Minister Theresa May genuinely said, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.

May’s sentiment is enraging for so many reasons, but it’s especially unpleasant because it’s a reminder of the uncomfortable feeling of being in the UK right now. After years of being reassured of the merits of multiculturalism, there’s a newly troubling sensation in the air that maybe those of us with some kind of immigrant background aren’t so welcome here after all. In fact, it feels like a sentiment that’s being echoed throughout the West, with the refugee crisis and the rise of Donald bloody Trump. For those of us who don’t just identify as citizens of one place, times are looking a bit grim.

But if we believe that art might provide some kind of remedy to hard times, then the relevant antidote has arguably long been found in the work of Maya Arulpragasam, a.k.a. MIA. Here is an artist who has worn the “world citizen” status on her sleeve since day one, representing her experiences from Sri Lanka, India and the UK throughout her career. Her output has always been striking in this regard, but drawing from an amalgamation of cultures is something that feels of particular importance in this current tense climate.

That the first single from latest album AIM had the line “Borders, what’s up with that?” was a sure statement of intent. Yes, the world rhetoric might feel increasingly one of “us” and “them”, but MIA is having none of it. On ‘Borders’ she lambasts current popular culture (“‘Queeeen’, what’s up with that?”) over a typically hypnotic interweaving of Bollywood-meets-EDM sounds and asks us to wake the fuck up from our weird social media narcissism and actually pay attention to what’s going on. It’s a fantastic song, and the perfect showcase of what MIA does best: pop with a political slant, infused with humid sounds from around the world.

At points, however, what follows on the record is bewildering. It’s not that there aren’t some exquisite fusion dance songs here, just the overall result is not as affecting or fulfilling as earlier albums: the record as a whole isn’t as cohesive as we’ve heard MIA on, say, Arular or Kala. AIM is her fifth and purportedly final album, and occasionally MIA seems a bit lost on it: as though confused about what exactly she wanted the record to do overall. There are politics here, but she doesn’t seem to go all in for a change: musically, ‘Visa’ is deliciously intricate, but lyrically falls flat when, at the US border her commentary is limited to “Mexicans say hola”. Songs can appear without seeming fully formed: ‘Jump In’, for example, is convoluted, and feels fragmentary and jarring.

But maybe that’s because it follows two more obviously punchy pop songs: the late night bhangra-tinged banger of ‘Go Off’, and the cawing, tantalising vibrancy of ‘Bird Song’.

On ‘Freedun’, you’re initially reminded that MIA’s delivery and lyricism can be very grating (“I’m a swagga man”, she says in that nonchalant childish drawl), but by the time the song’s over you’re willing to forgive it. In blending her more abrasive style with the celestial melismas of Zayn, the pair have created something quite beautiful: and, again, proved that there is something quite unique in having lived that immigrant experience.

When the record draws to a close with the lush and shiny dancehall sounds of ‘Survivor’, all the recent discourse about cultural appropriation springs to mind. When MIA is in her element, she’s a reminder that cultural exchange needn’t be problematic: done right, it’s what drives the best creations. ‘Survivor’ has her trademark singsong voice over warm strings that recall the pretty polish of Popcaan et al, and it’s a sweet closing song.

At her peak, MIA personifies why being a “citizen of the world” isn’t being a citizen of nowhere: it’s bridging the gap across an enriching wealth of experiences. If this is her last record then she hasn’t gone out on her finest note, but that’s certainly not to undermine the album. Maya Arulpragasam’s body of work remains an important reminder of the exciting prospects of cultural exchange and the immigrant experience. Taken in that light, AIM is a fitting addition to her oeuvre.

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