Scott Wallace
10th Sep 2016

The fifth and ostensibly final album from English/Sri Lankan rapper and singer M.I.A. finds her in possibly her best form since her 2007 masterpiece Kala. Even this far into her career, AIM is a focused and incisive release that taps into contemporary trends and issues with that distinctive M.I.A. slant. If this truly is the final album from Mathangi Arulpragasam, the loss of her inimitable voice and rhetoric will be keenly felt.

On the opening track "Borders," which rides a trunk-rattling hip-hop beat and warped voices, M.I.A. asked in her characteristically irreverent tone, "Your privilege: What's up with that?" In today's discourse, "privilege" is a provocative word - a word that defines the way we approach equality and understanding between people of different races, genders and classes. Further into the track, she effortlessly draws links between contemporary slang and the violence of colonialism: "Queen," "killin' it," "slayin' it." Right from the beginning, she takes no prisoners.

Another standout track, "Freedun" is part dirt-caked banger and part lullaby, featuring gorgeous vocal contributions from former One Direction member Zayn Malik. On the track, M.I.A.'s rebellion is in her flippancy as she figuratively drops a bomb at the end of each stanza. In "Borders" she asked, "boat people, what's up with that?" and in "Freedun," she answers her own rhetorical question by plainly stating "Refugees learn about patience." In the context of M.I.A.'s sing-song delivery, it's confronting to say the least.

The plight of refugees is a thread running through the entirety of AIM. The darkest portions of the record, like the claustrophobic, frenzied and minimalist "Jump In," or the appropriately combative and clanging "Swords" (on the deluxe edition) deal directly with the dire situations faced by and desperate measures taken by refugees. Tracks like the soulful "Foreign Friend" featuring gravelly voiced Jamaican singer Dexta Daps and the sweat-soaked "Ali r u ok?" offer slight levity in looking at the pursuit of wealth and acceptance that typifies the immigrant experience.

In contrast to M.I.A.'s previous work, which synthesised rhythms and melodies from all around the globe, AIM has more in common with radio hip-hop and R&B, though re-appropriated and re-configured through her lens. The cloying and overstuffed production that marred parts of 2013's Matangi is gone in favour of something much crisper and focused on hooks, which is pleasing despite sacrificing some personality on tracks like the Skrillex produced "Go Off" and slightly faceless efforts like the slight and airy "Finally" and clichéd, autotuned closer "Survivor."

Despite these missteps though, when AIM hits, it's dead on target. "Bird Song," is full of bird puns ("I'm robin this joint") and buoyed by an earworm melody played on kazoo, of all things. With innovative and minimalist production from Blaqstarr, it creates a stunning, heat-miser ambience. "Visa" is another key track; Here it seems to be missing the sample from The Lion King that it had when it appeared back in March ("pirates! throw that shit on dj sites WORLDWIDE no borders - b 4 Disney shut it down!" M.I.A. tweeted), but with its nervously tapped piano, paranoid, self-referential lyrics and jagged flow it's still a subversive standout.

Perhaps M.I.A. is getting out of the game because she's been constantly plagued by criticism and censure; She threatened to leak AIM earlier this year as it was held back again by her label, she's been embroiled in a ridiculous legal scuffle with the NFL over her middle finger, among accusations of being hypocritical and pro-terrorism. Whatever the reason, she leaves behind a legacy as one of the most original and influential artists of the 21st Century, and AIM, in its vitality and pointedness, despite its imperfections, is a brilliant continuation of that legacy. It's hard to imagine her ever falling silent.

AIM is out now on CD and digital formats.