M.I.A.'s trademark style is a cut-and-mix pastiche of diverse sounds drawn from what can seem like all the various kinds of party music that keep people dancing around the world. A little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of reggae, a little bit of dance, a little bit of bhangra, a little bit of soca, a little bit of grime.
M.I.A.'s music feels at home any place where those beats are banging (loudly) out of big speakers.
M.I.A.'s taste for eclectic borrowings is on full display in "Paper Planes." The song's first, and most obvious, sonic building block is a looped sample from the opening of the Clash's 1982 social protest anthem, "Straight to Hell." The two songs begin almost identically, although M.I.A. thickens the bassline, turns up the drumbeat, and adds a little bit of extra percussion rattling around the bottom end of the mix to fatten up the sound.
But despite those changes, there can be no mistaking the heavy debt "Paper Planes" owes to "Straight to Hell" for its basic musical architecture; 80% of "Paper Planes" is "Straight to Hell."
Moving beyond the obvious (if effective) sampling of the Clash, "Paper Planes" also borrows the melody for its chorus—that's the bit with the kids, gunshots, and cash registers—from what may seem a more unlikely source: "Rump Shaker," the raunchy 1992 hit from the group Wreckz-N-Effect. The lyrics change—from the original nonsensical-but-still-sketchy-sounding "All I wanna do is zoom a zoom zoom zoom / And a poom poom / Just shake your rump" to "All I wanna do is [blam blam blam blam] / And a [ka-ching] / And take your money."
M.I.A.'s reworking of the melody makes for an interesting adaptive reuse of one of the more memorable (if lyrically stupid) hip-hop hooks of the early 1990s. If an unholy marriage of "Straight to Hell" and "Rump Shaker" provides "Paper Planes" with its basic architecture, the song's dense sound is fleshed out with several layers of rich production. The Clash's straightforward drumbeat gives way to a syncopated hip-hop rhythm, with an extra layer of fingers snapping to the beat added for good measure. A children's choir sings the chorus, the kids' cherubic voices interrupted by the infamous sound effects of gunshots and cash registers.
So, that's "Paper Planes," then: where '70s British punk meets '90s New Jack Swing, and both run headlong into singing kids, snapping fingers, ringing cash registers and crashing gunshots…all over an irresistibly danceable beat, of course.
M.I.A.'s calling card is a musical sensibility that combines a radical political vision with a hyper-catchy dance aesthetic. If the Clash represented "revolution rock," M.I.A. offers up progressive party music, songs to help earnest liberal intellectuals cut loose and get down.
Watch what happens in a club when a DJ starts spinning "Paper Planes." We can almost guarantee you'll see a bunch of hipster kids—most of them probably advocates of gun control and nonviolent social change in real life—gleefully singing, at the top of their lungs, about shooting people and taking their money.
M.I.A.'s "Third World revolutionary" image makes her catchy little gangsta ditty socially acceptable to fans who might turn their noses up at the exact same lyrics if they came out of the mouths of more mainstream rappers like Lil Wayne or 50 Cent.
M.I.A.'s songwriting in "Paper Planes" is simple and utilitarian. She uses a basic form of rhyming couplets, and aside from a few isolated cases where she employs a kind of slant rhyme—as in "bones/bombs" and "trucks/gas"—her rhymes are pretty basic: "planes/name," "trains/game," "fame/name," "like us/wireless," etc.
There's not a great deal of complex wordplay or symbolism here, either. Aside from the song's intriguingly metaphorical opening line "I fly like paper, get high like planes," the song simply tells its story in fairly direct language. The writing's most noticeable feature might be its liberal usage of street slang—"I'm clocking that game," "Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless," etc.—which contributes to the song's edgy "gangsta" atmosphere.
As for that one metaphor, M.I.A. is clearly fond of it, since she worked it into the song's title. What does it mean, exactly, to "fly like paper, get high like planes"? What do paper planes have to do with swagger on the corner, with dreams of shooting people and taking their money? Perhaps it's a metaphor for slipping across the border; perhaps just a cliché about firing up the bong.
But the song's music video suggests something a bit more interesting, with visuals of paper planes floating unnoticed through the Manhattan sky like the souls of the socially invisible immigrants working there. Maybe we're all only paper planes in the end. (Or maybe not.)