Monday, November 3, 2008

Bombass Groove of the Week #4

Some songs smack you across the face and say, "Heyo, drop your shit and listen to me!" "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "The Message" fall in that category. Other tunes just creep up on you. They might sound pedestrian at first, the aural equivalent of driving past a rolling green field. But upon revisiting it, you begin to appreciate how the wind unfurls itself on the blades of grass, how small birds surf that same wind, surrendering their internal GPS to the fates. Enter "Paper Planes," a single off M.I.A.'s second album,

Musically, the song opens by busting a hole through reality. The Clash's "Straight to Hell" guitar and bassline are the main skeleton of the jam, with some 808-style snare and bass drum hits courtesy of producer, Diplo. The rhythmic bottom of the tune is thick with G-Funk synths, finger snaps, and hiccuping hi-hats. Add The Clash's sample on top of that, and you have one of the illest beats of 2008. Part of me wishes Ghostface Killah would use the instrumental for one of his cokedrama tunes.

The chorus must be considered holistically, not just sonically or lyrically. M.I.A. sings: "All I wanna do is [four gunshot blasts]/And a, [cash register sounds] take your money." If that chorus isn't a straight descendant of Public Enemy's Bomb Squad, nothing is. My cousin Jeremy and his wife Alex were upset about the glorification of violence, which was amplified by the chorus of kids singing the chorus and the poppiness of the melody. I can understand that. Kids who listen to the tune might sing along and think everything's all good, without realizing that, A), violence is bad; and B), what the song is truly about.

M.I.A. is a London-based Sri Lankan immigrant, whose dad used to be (or is, if he's alive) a Tamil Tiger. Life as immigrants, in England or anywhere else, is closely linked to how they are viewed by others - read: non-minorities. She suggests fake visas can be made in a jiffy; drugs are looking to be sold; and both can be delivered, no problem. It can be interpreted that the verses are from the immigrant's point of view and the chorus is the xenophobe's view of the immigrant. In the ending hook, she sings, "Some I murder/some I let go." No matter what or what for, she might kill somebody; or, then again, she might not. Moral ambiguity in the age of xenophobia isn't the exception, it's the rule.

The song is a cynical indictment of how immigrants and/or minorities are viewed by the majorities. In the video, she rides around in a skull & bones truck selling sandwiches, as she raps about visas and drugs. All the customers, including Mike D and Adrock from the Beastie Boys, pay with jewelry, not cash. That suggests that they've already spent all their money and can only use jewelry to buy the sandwiches, which are a cover for illegal shit. (Note that when she raps "I make 'em all day" referring to the visas, the sandwiches multiply on a cutting board.) Yeah, she's slanging, but people are buying, she seems to postulate. What does that say about you, homie? Or as political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel wrote, "[W]hen resources are so scarce that it is a question of one group or the other surviving, discrimination against outsiders...and insider favoritism are inevitable."

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