Now that football is over, these are back.
"Paper Planes" was the smash breakout hit for the English-Indian artist.
In the song, M.I.A. plays up the stereotype of a menacing illegal immigrant, forging documents and threatening violence. It was inspired by her efforts to enter America on a visa (she is a British citizen of Sri Lankan descent), which resulted in a months-long bureaucratic morass, something she attributed to her dark skin and exotic real name: Mathangi Arulpragasam.
She composed the song with her then-boyfriend, the DJ/producer Diplo (Wesley Pentz), who wasn't as well known at the time as he is now. "Paper Planes" was the first "smash" song he worked on; a few years later he was on the charts with a number of productions, including Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" and his Tiesto collaboration, "C'Mon (Catch 'Em By Surprise)."
M.I.A. came up with the lyrics all at once one morning. She was living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, at the time.
Speaking with Fader magazine, M.I.A. said: "I was thinking about living there, waking up every morning - it's such an African neighborhood. I was going to get patties at my local and just thinking that really the worst thing that anyone can say is some s--t like: 'What I wanna do is come and get your money.' People don't really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they're just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song I say 'All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.' I did it in sound effects. It's up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I'm sure they'll get it."
Both Mike D and Adrock from the Beastie Boys plus DMX made cameo appearances in the video. It was originally going to be shot on the Ecuador border but they were forced to switch to New York due to M.I.A.'s time restraints. Director Bernard Gourley shot the clip in a Caribbean community in Brooklyn. According to VH1's Pop-Up Video, M.I.A.'s manager refused to let her wear a Metallica T-shirt for some of the scenes, so she locked herself in her apartment for two hours until he relented.
The gunshot sounds on this track imply a robbery, but M.I.A. claimed they have a deeper meaning: critiquing the military-industrial complex that sells guns to Third-World countries and reaps the profits.
Musically, the song is built on a sample of the 1982 Clash song "Straight To Hell," which also deals with immigration and xenophobia. The sample was Diplo's idea.
Just before M.I.A. could pen the song, she found herself in a battle with the United States government.
After the release of her debut album Arular, she briefly found herself on the Homeland Security Risk list due to her lyrical content.
Named after her political activist father’s code name in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the album in part sought to shed light on the strife happening in her home country (while she was born in London, she spent her childhood displaced in Sri Lanka during the long-running, fatal conflict).
Her vocal support for the pro-secession Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (aka Tamil Tigers) drew concern from the government and mixed praise and criticism abroad – some even labeling her as "a terrorist."
It was used heavily in the promotion for the Seth Rogen and James Franco stoner epic Pineapple Express, a DFA remix was featured prominently in the Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, and was eventually sampled for the Kanye West, T.i., and Jay-Z mega-hit “Swagga Like Us.”
The song licensing was a marketing success, but it’s interesting to consider what the song was beginning to represent via the media it was being used to promote. It became a signifier for rebellion, a middle finger to the status quo (even if it was making some business executive money somewhere out there).
M.I.A. herself is on the record about being a fan of The Clash, calling them not just important to her but for London as well. But it’s also important to call out how the music calls out this punk feeling without ever explicitly saying it, using a reggae-inspired riff.
"We both have that reckless abandon. We don’t really look at any rules and we have successes and failures,” Diplo said in an interview alongside The Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon on BoomshotsTV. “[The Clash] were always pioneers in sonics, of the way music sounded. In one way the message was punk rock but also the attitude of making music was even more in that same punk ethos. That’s why we have a similar attitude."
Jones agrees, saying that he thought “hip-hop was the same as punk rock.” He continues, “When we had punk rock, that was our music in the streets when it started. And so was hip-hop when it started. And I could see a direct comparison there.”
The song's backing track is a replayed sample of the 1982 song "Straight to Hell" by The Clash. The chorus of "Paper Planes" was speculated to be based on the chorus of the 1992 song "Rump Shaker" by Wreckx-N-Effect, although that song's writers are not credited. The song was produced by Diplo with additional production by Switch.