September 09, 2016 at 08:31 PM EDT
We gave it a B+

Is M.I.A. ready to chill out?

Generally thought of as a radical provocateur, M.I.A., 41, has established herself over the years as one of music’s reliably intriguing and colorful characters — an arty activist who writes hot-button protest songs about war and global strife while also performing at the Super Bowl with Madonna. That middle finger she threw up during the halftime show is almost too neat of a way to sum her up: hard enough to scare the masses, but talented enough to get their attention in the first place.

Her latest album, AIM, veers sharply toward the crowd-pleasing side. Do you like M.I.A’s sunny 2008 hit “Paper Planes” but have no idea what to do with her more noisy and abrasive recent works, like 2013’s Matangi and 2010’s Maya? AIM might be for you.

Lighter in sound and frequently optimistic, M.I.A.’s latest finds her radiating some surprisingly positive vibes. It’s also, well, fun. For evidence, check out “Freedun”—yes, it’s the song that features Zayn, he of One Direction infamy. Laid back with an undeniably sticky rhythm, the song kicks off with M.I.A declaring herself an ambassador from “the People’s Republic of Swaggerstan.” After that, the lyrics are mostly meaningless—“Freak da da da dum Free dum,” goes the toe-tapping chorus—but they’ll still get stuck in your head, while Zayn’s breezy feature adds just the right amount of extra gauze.

Right after that comes a woozy track called “Foreign Friend,” where M.I.A.’s lyrics are downright sweet:

You can be my best friend

You know too much to be a foe

You were the from before

In the days when I had no dough

Break bread, watching Breaking Bad

Always there when I break up bad

In bed feeling so sad

You were always there as a comrade

And then there’s “Survivor,” a sparkling song about living through war. It’s not her strongest work, but it could easily soundtrack an uplifting scene in some awards-friendly movie about people overcoming their circumstances.

A lot of the album is politically engaged in this almost casual way — particularly when it comes to the topic of refugees. M.I.A., a refugee herself since fleeing war-torn Sri Lanka as a child, half-engages with the recent migrant crisis coming out of Syria and other embattled Middle Eastern nations. The results are mixed. “Borders, what’s up that?” she says on, well, “Borders,” while the Bollywood-tinged earworm “Visa” gleefully taunts border patrollers.

AIM is more interested in having a good time than making a good argument. Fortunately, M.I.A. is really, really good at having fun: “Go Off” is a bouncy, boastful Friday-night-playlist party track produced by Blaqstarr and Skrillex. The booming, Skrillex-produced “A.M.P. (All My People)” brings the kind of Matangi-style heat that’ll make your head spin, and “Fly Pirate” is a weird, minimal, druggy delight. AIM may not be the Next Great M.I.A. album, but it delivers a solid collection of distinctive, crowd-friendly bangers that sound like no one else. 

Key Tracks

“Freedun”

A sleek and breezy earworm featuring Zayn.

“A.M.P. (All My People)”

Bombastic, head-spinning, Skrillex-produced party catnip

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