This is the first single from Gym Class Heroes frontman Travis "Travie" McCoy's debut solo album, Lazarus. The album was originally going to be titled The Lazarus Project, but as there was already a movie of that name he changed it to the more to the point Lazarus.
McCoy told MTV News about the song's meaning: "It's me talking about what would happen if I would somehow manage to become a billionaire. What would I do with the money?" he explained. "Don't get it wrong, I'm far from a billionaire. I think I just made it out the 'thousandaire' category. So it's about what I would do with the money and, the same time, it opens up the question, if you were in a position to do something with a decent chunk of money, what would you do?"
The track features the vocals of McCoy's Atlantic Records labelmate, R&B singer Bruno Mars. The guest vocalist is also featured on B.o.B's #1 hit "Nothin' on You."
A lot of McCoy's original material for Lazarus had to be scrapped in the wake of his break-up with Katy Perry, as it was "kind of somber and a little too personal." He added in an interview with Billboard magazine: "Thankfully I have really awesome friends around me who pulled me out of that cave and said, 'C'mon, get yourself together. You've got a record to put out.' I did 'Billionaire,' and started messing around with more uptempo and, I dare say, happier stuff, and that definitely put me in a different headspace. I'm definitely a way more happy person than I was going into this record. I think the end result reflects that."
The song's light-hearted music video, directed by Mark Staubach, was filmed in Los Angeles and features Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz in a cameo riding around on a Vespa. Noted graffiti artist Greg "Craola" Simkins also appears in what would become a controversial part of the clip. Staubach received death threats after the video aired because it looked like Craola was tossing his paint cans into the ocean.
McCoy discussed the song's meaning with Alternative Press. He said: "When Bruno wrote the hook for 'Billionaire' and sang it to me, I was like, 'This is cool, but we're in a recession right now and I feel kind of awkward coming out the gate talking about wanting to have a lot of money.' It could have gone one of two ways: either the way it came out or I could have boasted and bragged about how much money I have, you know all the superficial s--t I do with it. But I posed a question to the listener, 'If you had a billion dollars, what would you do with it?' So a lot of what we talk about is pretty selfless, talking about helping [Hurricane] Katrina victims and things like that. It ended up being a really positive song and not only that, but it's a feel-good party song. It has that breezy, reggae, Sublime-type feel to it. I think it was the perfect first single to come out the gate with. If anything, it's a humanitarian statement. It's about being a good person and not necessarily using the fact that you're more fortunate than others and rubbing it in their face like a lot of people do, especially in hip-hop nowadays. A lot of songs say, 'Cool, I have a lot of money and I'm buying all this s--t and you don't have any.' This song is the anti-that."
The song's chord sequence is sampled directly from Sublime's 1996 track, "Santeria."
Bruno Mars came up with the hook while walking around London and slowly realizing how the exchange rate between the US dollar and British pound was affecting his spending power. "Me and [production partner] Ari Levine went out to London to work on producing and writing for an artist. We had per diems, so they gave us £250 [a few hundred dollars] each to live off of for 11 days," Mars told Billboard magazine. "And everything there was so expensive. We were like, 'Is this the biggest mistake we've ever made? We thought we were broke in California; what are we going to do here?' So we've got no money, and I'm walking the streets and came up with, 'I wanna be a billionaire, so frickin' bad.'"
According to Gym Class Heroes drummer Matt McGinley, this song and McCoy's solo success were a blessing for the band, as it gave them more time to work on their 2011 album The Papercut Chronicles 2, and it added another hit to their setlist - they played it when they toured in 2011. Said McGinley in our 2011 interview: "It's something that creates interest and excitement and it's a little bit different. I couldn't be happier for Travis. And there's a selfish benefit as well - I bought a house five years ago that I barely got to stay in. So during Trav's thing, I had a little bit more freedom to stay and hang around and be with my family."
This was the second hit song to mention the actor Brad Pitt - the first was "That Don't Impress Me Much" by Shania Twain. In this song, McCoy sings that he'd "pull and Angelina and Brad Pitt and adopt a bunch of babies that ain't never had s--t." Said Pitt, "It's sweet. It's just unfortunate that my name rhymes with s--t."
Songwriter Demetrius Orlandus Proctor filed a lawsuit in January 2014 claiming he holds the copyright for the song. Proctor submitted as evidence a certificate of registration from the United States Copyright Office for something called "Frisky Vol. 1 to 30 (Tapes)," which was made in 2000.