I fly like paper, get high like planes
"Paper Planes" may never have broken through to become an international pop hit if it weren't for this fairly lame pot-smoking reference in its first verse.
Almost certainly due to this lyric, the song got picked up to serve as the musical backdrop for the theatrical trailer to Pineapple Express, a 2008 comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogan as an inept pot dealer and his favorite customer.
Immediately after that trailer's debut, the song hit the pop charts, fueled by a sudden upsurge of iTunes downloads.
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name
M.I.A., a British citizen whose non-stage name is Maya Arulpragasam, was prevented from recording the album Kala (upon which "Paper Planes" appears) in the United States because she couldn't get a legal work visa to enter the country throughout much of 2007.
It's unclear exactly what M.I.A. did to end up on the wrong side of America's customs/immigration/Homeland Security bureaucracy. Much speculation at the time focused on her father's past political activism with the Tamil Tigers, a radical Sri Lankan separatist group that has endorsed terrorist acts.
In any case, M.I.A. eventually regained clearance to enter the country; she'd go on to make her primary residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
Sometimes I think sitting on trains
M.I.A. almost certainly had an urban subway in mind when she wrote this line, but Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle used the song to underscore a scene in which the film's young stars literally ride on top of a train, hustling other passengers as they travel through the Indian countryside.
"Paper Planes" became an unlikely hit single largely due to its usage on the silver screen. The song was released as a single early in 2008, but failed to crack the Billboard charts until it appeared in the trailer for the stoner comedy Pineapple Express.
The song was then used—twice, in two different mixes—in Slumdog Millionaire, which ultimately won eight Academy Awards and helped "Paper Planes" crack the Billboard top ten.
I'm clocking that game
Where we come from, that's slang for dealing crack.
We're not sure whether "clocking that game" has exactly the same connotation in South London (or in Sri Lanka) as it does here in the states, but this is clearly a celebration of some kind of shady hustle.
All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam]
The use of realistic gunshot sound effects in the chorus of "Paper Planes"—especially when juxtaposed against the sweet sounds of singing children—became a magnet for controversy.
When the video for "Paper Planes" premiered on MTV in late 2007, the gunshots were censored, replaced in the mix—against M.I.A.'s wishes—by what the artist herself unhappily and somewhat incoherently called "this f----d up mess with double-tracked bulls--t mess" (source).
M.I.A., livid at the unexpected alteration of her work, blew up in a post on her MySpace page before eventually convincing her label and MTV to restore the original sound. Something similar happened when M.I.A. performed the song live on the David Letterman show; she reacted with visible surprise when her gunshots came out of the set's speakers sounding like nothing more than some kind of funky electronic banging.
All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam]
and a [ka-ching]
And take your money
The song's chorus features a choir of schoolchildren from Brixton, England sweetly singing the rather disconcerting lyric, "All I wanna do is [gunshots] / And [ka-ching of cash register] / And take your money."
M.I.A.'s choice to use a youth choir specifically from Brixton was surely no accident. Brixton, a working-class suburb located just south of London, played a leading role in late-20th-century Britain's struggles over race, immigration, and urban decay. (Brixton has the same symbolic importance in the UK as, say, Watts or Newark has in the U.S.)
In the 1950s, Brixton became a mostly-Black enclave as thousands of immigrants poured into the area, especially from British West Indian colonies like Jamaica and Trinidad. By the late 1970s, the city had become the scene of ferocious tension between Black residents and white authorities. In 1981, heavy-handed police efforts to crack down on street crime on Brixton's main street, Railton Road, touched off widespread rioting. Hundreds of people were injured and dozens of buildings were burned.
Railton Road became known as "The Frontline," as if Brixton were at war with the rest of the country. Rioting erupted in Brixton again in both 1985 and 1995; today, the city remains the heart of London's Afro-Caribbean immigrant community and ground zero in Britain's struggle to reinvent itself as a multiracial society.
Even before the first Brixton riots occurred in 1981, the city's widespread racial tension, poverty, and social discontentment were evident enough to inspire the Clash to record "The Guns of Brixton," which borrowed a reggae beat and the iconography of the cult-favorite film The Harder They Come from Brixton's predominantly Jamaican culture. The song's grim message, recorded in 1979, sounded prophetic when the riots erupted just two years later:
When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head?
Or on the trigger of your gun?
When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement?
Or waiting in death row?
You can crush us
You can bruise us
But you'll have to answer to
Woe, Guns of Brixton.
The Clash, as flag-bearers for a certain engaged left-wing political sensibility within the British punk movement, became revered icons for many progressive musicians…like M.I.A., who uses a looped sample from another Clash song, "Straight to Hell," to provide the musical backbone for "Paper Planes."
Sticks and stones and weed and bombs
Here the lyrics first mimic a common children's rhyme—"sticks and stones may break my bones"—but then take a very different turn. Words may never hurt you, but "weed and bombs" (or is it bongs?) might.
As in the chorus, M.I.A. here creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition of childish innocence and violent criminality. Just like the gunshots in the chorus, this line was censored on MTV.
No one on the corner has swagger like us
This line was sampled prominently in "Swagga Like Us," the 2008 Grammy-winning hit single featuring an all-star collaboration of rappers Jay-Z, T.I., Kanye West, and Lil Wayne.
We think the original lyric was actually "swag like us"—that would fit better with the drug-dealing theme of the verse—instead of "swagga like us."
But who are we to argue with Jay, Tip, Kanye, and Weezy? M.I.A. joined that dream team of American rappers onstage to perform the song live at the 2009 Grammy Awards, while nine months pregnant.
Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless
A "burner" is a cheap prepaid cell phone.
Drug dealers typically use "burners" to conduct their business, throwing the phones away as soon as their minutes are up in order to ensure that they can't easily be traced by the police.
Already going to hell just pumping that gas
This might be a sly shoutout to "Straight to Hell," the Clash song that M.I.A. sampled heavily to create the music behind "Paper Planes."
"Straight to Hell" was perhaps the most downbeat song the Clash ever recorded, both lyrically and musically.
The song moves thematically from the shuttering of British industries, to the abandonment of half-American children and their Vietnamese mothers at the end of the Vietnam War, to the discrimination meted out to Puerto Ricans in New York. The common thread throughout is the alienation suffered by immigrants throughout the world. The song ends with a bleak verse:
Can you cough it up loud and strong
The immigrants they wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier, any hemisphere
In no man's land
And there ain't no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived round here
Straight to hell boy
Go straight to hell boy.
For M.I.A., a childhood refugee and immigrant who self-identifies as a citizen of the global Third World, the song may have had special significance; "Paper Planes" might even be heard as a kind of delayed response to questions raised by the Clash in "Straight to Hell."
All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam]
And take your money
The melody of the chorus is a riff on Wreckx-N-Effect's 1992 new-jack hit "Rump Shaker."
Lyrics to the 1992 booty-rap version:
All I wanna do is zoom a zoom zoom zoom
And a poom poom
Just shake ya rump.
The Wreckx-N-Effect song peaked at #2 on the pop charts, held out of the top spot only by Whitney Houston's spectacularly popular "I Will Always Love You." M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" maxed out at #4.
Third World democracy
M.I.A. likes to portray herself as the voice of uprooted Third World refugees everywhere, and as a spokesperson for radical new forms of democracy.
But there's more than a little irony in holding up "Paper Planes" as representative of "Third World democracy." One of the leading factors in turning democracy in many Third World countries into little more than a cruel joke has been the destructive power of a worldview that sounds a lot like, "All I wanna do is [blam blam blam] and [ka-ching] and take your money."
Since the decolonization movement spread across the world in the 1960s, far too many Third World governments have come to be dominated by rulers willing to use violence to increase their own private riches.
I got more records than the KGB
The KGB was the notorious secret police and espionage agency of the old Soviet Union from the 1950s through 1990.
The KGB terrorized the people of the Soviet Union by conducting widespread internal surveillance, monitoring citizens' behavior for any sign of dissent from the communist regime.
The KGB amassed millions of pages of detailed records on individuals deemed threatening to the state. M.I.A.'s records, presumably, are of the black vinyl variety instead.
Some some some, some I murder
Some, some I let go
Here, again, M.I.A.'s light sing-songy tone clashes violently with the almost nihilistic content of her lyrics.
M.I.A. has repeatedly been criticized for glorifying violence in her art, and even accused of supporting terrorism.
However, she insists that she invokes violent images merely to challenge listeners' assumptions, and that she does not in fact support violence of any kind.