How to Rob, by M.I.A.

M.I.A. triumphantly knocks the hustle that's driving hip-hop's materialist malaise

DISCUSSED
M.I.A. ("Paper Planes," #6 single)
Kala (#3 album)
50 Cent ("I Get Money," #28 single)

If 50 Cent's biggest 2007 single boasted "I Get Money" in the kind of sated tones that let you know he had enough to burn, M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" threatened to take yours. That Maya Arulpragasam, a Tamil Tiger's daughter chained to the most fetishized pop-music biography this side of Robert Johnson, would rhyme at some point about involuntary social redistribution was a surprise only in that it took so long. Arular's "Pull Up the People" might have been a slogan, but it wasn't a threat; "Paper Planes," meanwhile, is most definitely a threat, but few seemed to notice. Whereas people endlessly parsed M.I.A.'s 2005 debut for radical statements of solidarity with her father, Kala's "Paper Planes" proposed an undiluted Robin Hood scheme, and instead reviewers wanted to talk about the song's Clash sample and Wreckx-'n'-Effect chorus flip.

Speaking of rappers, in a year not infrequently deemed one of the more unmemorable for hip-hop, our year-end results indeed show a lackluster take: Jay-Z (#18, an indulgence in the artist's past work made exciting by virtue of not being Kingdom Come); Ghostface (#44, too many crime capers, not enough weirdness); Wu-Tang Clan (#56, too much weirdness, not enough crime capers); Kanye West (#6, an everyman ruined by finally collecting the fame and cash he'd so winningly pined after); and Lil Wayne (#35, and M.I.A.'s closest peer on this list, since he gave his record away for free). 50's Curtis sits all the way down at #443. As for populism, beyond American Gangster's whiff of the Bumpy Johnson Harlem Thanksgiving-turkey ritual, five out of six of our highest-profile rap records were disappointing because they were, in one way or another, self-absorbed and selfish. (One other exception to add to Wayne's: UGK's victorious, now elegiac Underground Kingz, underrated at #39).

Consider the remixes. M.I.A. hosted UGK's Bun B and, um, Rich Boy, while 50 got conceptual and, joining with rap's other two top earners (Jay-Z and Diddy), created the "Forbes 1, 2, 3 Remix." Batting third, Jay could be heard to sneer, "I wouldn't want to be outside of the bubble on this one," cutting to the heart of the matter. Meanwhile, Bun B, whose career moment remains a guest verse on a Jay-Z song, turned the arrow the other way ("Get your Robin Hood on/Put some pressure on the man!"), while M.I.A. and her producer, Diplo, invited some Brixton street kids playing outside the studio to retrack the song's chorus. Both artists, in other words, had thought hard about potential splits on the eventual royalty check.

If hip-hop in 2005 and 2006 was mostly about the trap—a breaking wave represented by Young Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 at #39 in 2005, followed in 2006 by Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury at #7 and Ghostface's Fishscale at #3—2007 was all about the cash-out, or at least the cash-back-in. And if striking it rich at the expense of your consumer, your neighbor, and your brother was a route to wealth as counterrevolutionary as tripling your net worth off a Vitamin Water stock merger, at least the putative trappers never pretended an underclass didn't exist.

And so, although I don't think M.I.A. is really a rapper in any meaningful way, she might just be rap's Sex Pistols—or rap's Clash, whose "Straight to Hell" makes "Paper Planes" go. On her Rick Ross–baiting "Hussel," she claims money makes her numb and asks why "everyone got hustle on their mind?" She's still wondering. "When I was in Liberia, you get into the huts, and little kids are listening to that shit," she told the Voice earlier this year. "And it's cute to see them dancing to it, like, 'Wow, yeah, the 'Hustlin' ' song, that's so cool!' And then it's like, 'Actually, it's not fucking cool.' You have to give them something else as well. If it's about working, or if you're talking about money, then I don't think that 99 percent of music should stress that." By all accounts, nine of 10 hip-hop (non)consumers agree—not that they've heard of M.I.A. Yet.

The only downside to "Paper Planes" is that the song was so dissertation-ready that you could easily overlook its undisputed spot as the year's second-catchiest single, behind that one sung by the year's other big visa-slinging female, Rihanna. Beyond the jokey gunshot-rejoinder of M.I.A.'s chorus, which sent up a common rap trope even as it provided what should be the last word in .45-as-snare-drum production the world over, "Planes" also proved a lot easier to sing along to than "Umbrella." It was also the exception to M.I.A.'s no-less-than-1,000-sources production rule—eclecticism that was always a bit easier to admire than to enjoy. Arular, noted Simon Reynolds's 2005 complaint in the Voice, "comes from nowhere." But "Paper Planes" comes from two readily identifiable sources—three, if you count M.I.A. herself. In the video, she and Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy serve up street food on New York City streets in exchange for dudes' chains, watches, and cash—among those stopping by the cart are Ad Rock and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, paying their respects and, as it turns out, Mike D.'s Rolex. It's a hipster passing of the torch, sure, but stare at the frame long enough on pause and you'll realize something else, too: Not one of the three people in the shot ever spent much time rapping about how rich they were.

Music needs constituencies beyond "Forbes 1, 2, 3," see? That "Paper Planes" provides an upward-mobility primer for those below at the expense of those above makes the track a mystifyingly rare commodity in a market where demand for such a thing has never been more sky-high. Look no further than YouTube, where remixes like "M.I.A.— Paper Planes and How to Field Strip an AK-47" mix with the incendiary official one. You don't have to believe that M.I.A. is one of the global poor—or that she has even a passing acquaintance with the violent ordnance that adorns her record covers and choruses— to think she's got the right idea about leveling the playing field. Not to mention the right idea about who her audience consists of—or could consist of, anyway. Bun B, no stranger to the role, speaks for more than himself when he raps: "Being poor is a disease, gotta hustle up a cure/Start with your head, homie, then use your hands/If you try it in reverse, you don't even have a chance." There's Hustlin', and there's Husselin'. How many rappers can claim to do both?

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