Singer, rapper and activist M.I.A’s fifth studio album is a compilation of good intentions which fail to come together in any discernible way. Most aspects of the album come from an interesting and innovative place, and are clearly trying to create an alternative to the current musical narrative, but an overwhelming lack of effort is put into attempting to mesh these aspects together to create an effective whole.
It is refreshing to hear these Eastern-inspired sounds of percussion and melody in the backing tracks, but they are too repetitive or clash with the vocals. The lyrical content, instead of conveying M.I.A’s messages pertaining to issues like the refugee crisis and civil rights, is comprised of nothing but political buzzwords assembled nonsensically, creating some of the most meaningless and lazy lyrics I have ever heard. Perhaps her music is being affected by the backlash from her recent controversies surrounding her condemnation of Black Lives Matter’s message. Regardless, this album comes across like little more than a disjointed Tumblr post.
Possibly the largest glaring error on an album loaded with them is its awful writing. And while I wish I could blame others, M.I.A herself has the primary writing credit on each and every track. Any semblance of a message M.I.A. is trying to send here is completely diminished by the presence of these vapid lines. “Bird Song”, for one, is a song comprised entirely of every terrible bird-related pun she could come up with. Getting through the song is a struggle, especially when she becomes the umpteenth person to rhyme “vulture” with “culture” and immediately declares “I’m robin this joint”.
“Borders” is structured like it’s supposed to be a profound statement on the current world, but half of the song is M.I.A. stating a current issue, and offering nothing in response but “What’s up with that?”. The presence of random, context-free statements like “Freedun”s “Dinosaurs died out and I’m still strong” only adds to the overall absurdity.
The instrumentals leave much to be desired as well, many of them just becoming incredibly grating. There are certainly some interesting sounds here, but they are so repetitive that they become annoying beyond belief and verging on headache-inducing. The blaring siren sounds provided by none other than the sporadically brilliant Skrillex on “A.M.P. (All My People). The looping kazoo melody on “Bird Song” which, I suppose, is meant to resemble bird calls. And the fact that on more than one occasion it sounds like an overly eager sound engineer took a sampling machine and began mashing it with reckless abandon, without a care for the rhythm of the track. The worst cases are the irritating “hey” punctuating the beat of “Ali R U OK?”, and the fact that basically the entire premise of “Fly Pirate” is doing exactly that with M.I.A. yelling “Fly Pirate” in our ears repeatedly.
Choices in M.I.A.’s delivery across the board are also decidedly strange. “Finally” is an absolute mess that sees the basic structure of rhythm thrown out the window (I suppose it’s appropriate with the song’s watered down message of freedom) and M.I.A. delivering some absolutely terrible, pitchy vocals. I’m not sure how anyone allowed this on a major label release.
Not that she is any better of a rapper – on the more hip-hop skewing songs on the project she sounds at times like she is trying to do her best impression of a posh British accent. The beats of songs like “A.M.P. (All My People)” and “Visa” are much harder than the rest of the album, clearly meant for a grittier vocal performance that never comes. She sounds like she doesn’t care about her own message. As soon as she drops into “Ali R U OK?” with a disengaged “Money money money/Work work work” the listener has already tuned out.
Pitchfork actually summed this album up perfectly with the closing sentences in their far-too-generous review, which are so accurate I felt the need to quote them here: “M.I.A. demonstrates her legacy as an artist eager to tackle issues that are volatile and antagonistic. But at this point her music is more potent in theory than execution.” This is one of the most disjointed and confusing albums in recent memory, and the message only gets lost in the noise.
Favourite Tracks: Foreign Friend, Survivor
Least Favourite Track: Fly Pirate