Trap beats shook the air like mallets to a timpani. I was sitting in my friend Nate’s house in East Harlem; we were freestyle rapping; his wife lay in the other room. At one point he handed me a thick, hardbound book. On its front, in gold lettering, read “The Anthology of Rap.” “I figured if we ran out of stuff to say we could just spit from this,” He said.
I opened it up and flipped through the pages. I saw the classics: Grandmaster Flash, Nas, UGK…and then M.I.A. and “Paper Planes.” I was really surprised. M.I.A. never struck me as rap music worth anthologizing. I knew “Paper Planes” from its Pineapple Express ubiquity but I’d never really sat down and listened, really listened, to the song before.
At home that night, I played “Paper Planes” through my speakers. As the beat ran, I visualized dancing conch shells and pulsing jam-band colors orbiting the center of the song, that wire that sounds like it’s about to snap. Then M.I.A. came in with her enveloping, entrancing voice and said “I fly like paper, get high like planes / If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name.” As the song proceeded, M.I.A. covered subjects like hustling, thinking, shooting guns, weed, and “going hard”; all classic gangsta rap topics.
It was then that I realized why “Paper Planes” was anthologized. These lyrics, they were brilliant, they were poetry, and they captured perfectly the core nut of gangsta rap.
“No one on the corner has swagger like us” encapsulates the “my team, fuck your team” mentality. “Pirate skulls and bones / sticks and stones and weed and bongs” provides imagery straight from a bad-guy movie. “All I wanna do is [bang bang bang bang]” is that get-it-by-any-means attitude implemented by the extortion artists, drug dealers, and robbers that gangsta rappers claim to be.
M.I.A. is painting a colorful caricature of the lifestyle, but a lot of gangsta rap is a caricature anyways; think Young Jeezy, think Rick Ross. The latter never even did any of the criminal activities he espouses. Quentin Tarantino movies about gangsters certainly exaggerate and glamorize the—in reality, incredibly tragic—lifestyle. That’s what art does—it focuses on certain details of life and inflates them to cover everything else. The selection of detail, differentiates art from reality.
There’s a reason Kanye West made a beat out of “Paper Planes”. There’s a reason why mainstream kings Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and T.I. all rapped over said beat, why underground rappers like Max B freestyled over it. They recognized it as a hip-hop beat with a hip-hop message. And in the great hip-hop tradition, they took it, they flipped it, and they made it their own.
I thought all these things, then I told them to a friend as we sat in his bedroom. He said, “Dude, ‘Paper Planes’ is satire.” I thought about it, and for all intents and purposes, it is: M.I.A. doesn’t kill or rob people. She’s a cute girl who’s having fun by playing gangster; think Lana Del Rey, think Beyonce.
But sometimes satire perfectly captures the defining hallmarks of a genre. If you want to read the best distillation of modern American journalism, read The Onion. Sure, their topics are absurd, but that’s why they’re hilarious—they allow us to see the pervasive matter-of-fact journalism style that we normally take for granted in a new, hilarious way. Tim and Eric is the same way; a lot of their comedy is based on mirroring whatever genre they are parodying, albeit with small twists that draw attention to the absurdity of it all. M.I.A. paints large, playful strokes of the gangsta rap lifestyle, and in doing so helps illuminate why the music is so entertaining in the first place.
I’m not saying that “Paper Planes” encapsulates all of rap; there is the socially conscious element of rap, the fans of which will probably hate this article. But in terms of the gun-slanging, slang-speaking, drug-dealing gangsta vibe, M.I.A. nails it.
I know the song doesn’t have the social background of gangsta rap. And I usually don’t even like gangsta rap that doesn’t talk about the negative side of that lifestyle, because I assume that anyone who’s ever actually lived it wouldn’t glorify it without talking about its consequences. But “Paper Planes” embodies a certain aspect of rap I love: unadulterated gushing confidence, team unity, and an attraction to the darker side of the American dream.
My friend Mahbod owns a site called Rap Genius, which explains rap lyrics. After I wrote this, I went there to look up “Paper Planes.” Apparently, the lyrics meant something about immigrants. That doesn’t change my mind—the song means something else to me. That’s the beauty of art; there’s no set definition. Whatever way it helps you better understand life, is the way it is. And even if it was about immigrants, it’s still about feeling like an outsider in America, which is one of the reasons why I relate to rap.
So for you, it might just be a song you and your friends smoke weed to, but to me, “Paper Planes” is the most gangsta rap song ever made. Understanding why I like it has helped me better understand why I like rap so much. It’s fun, it’s dangerous, it’s dark, it’s struggle, it’s taking a negative thing (the criminal lifestyle) and making it a positive thing, through glamorization and expression. And that’s just what I like.