M.I.A has always known that her unique blend of world music and politically minded hip-hop would be a hard sell. “In the beginning people were like, well, where the hell does this s— fit?” recalls the rapper who was born in Britain but is of Sri Lankan descent. “When I started off in England, HMV or Tower Records would come to meetings and be, like, we just don’t know what this genre is. I don’t really fit in between Rihanna and Beyoncé.” Indeed, for a long time, it seemed that M.I.A. was getting more good reviews than she was selling records. But now the 31-year-old has crossed over with her Clash-sampling single “Paper Planes,” which received a huge boost by being featured on the Pineapple Express trailer. After the jump, EW talks to M.I.A about her newfound success and why it’s really messed up her early retirement plans.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did a rap song that satirizes society’s fear of immigrants wind up on the trailer of a stoner action-comedy?
M.I.A.: They were really keen on the song and approached [my label] Interscope, andInterscope asked me and I was, like, well, since it’s just the trailer,that’s cool. I didn’t really think twice about it.
Would you have thought twice if they wanted to use it in the actual movie?
Yeah. Trailers just come and go. But if it was in the movie, I wouldhave had to scrutinize what scene they were using it in and stuff likethat.
Have you seen Pineapple Express?
No, I keep missing it. I got invited to the premiere but I couldn’t make it. Maybe I’ll go tonight.
I’m not sure whether you owe Seth Rogen a dinner or he owes you.
I think we probably owe each other one.
You had to cancel a festival appearance last year because youcouldn’t get a U.S. visa. Is it true that “Paper Planes” was partlyinspired by your problems with the immigration folks?
Yeah, they’re always giving me a hard time. When I wrote it I’d justgotten in to New York after waiting a long time and that’s why I wroteit, just to have a dig. It’s about people driving cabs all day andliving in a s—ty apartment and appearing really threatening tosociety. But not being so. Because, by the time you’ve finished workinga 20-hour shift, you’re so tired you [just] want to get home to the family. Idon’t think immigrants are that threatening to society at all. They’rejust happy they’ve survived some war somewhere.
What is the significance of the gunshots and the cash register rings on the track?
You can either apply it on a street level and go, oh, you’re talkingabout somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money.But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: someone’s selling you gunsand making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufactureguns — that’s probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.
That’s a lot of stuff for a pop song.
It is, but you only have three minutes to put in your thesis.
When you performed at Bonnaroo this year, you said it was going to be your last ever show. Did you mean it?
Well, it was my last ever show. And it still is. I stopped touringafter that and I didn’t want to make music again. I was quite happy tojust leave it all behind. I was happy with what I had achieved. Now,with the success of “Paper Planes,” there’s pull for me to makeanother record. Even my mum believes in me more [laughs]. It’s a niceencouragement. But I was planning my life as a fishing woman on theoutskirts of Cambodia. That’s a joke.
What did you really want to do?
I think I would have gone and made a film. As an artist you want toplay around with mediums and see if you can get the point across in adifferent way. I wanted to stay an outsider and prolong the process ofgetting accepted.
Well, you’ve really messed that up.
I know, I know! Now I have to go back to the drawing board. Seriously, these weeks have been, like, s—, now what?