“This Is America”, from Donald Glover’s rap alter-ego, Childish Gambino, is a densely strung high-tension wire of black lights. Dropped this weekend, in the wake of the artist’s appearance as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live, (just as #DonaldGlover was trending on socials), the video for the track landed, and amplified the blast range. At time of writing this review, a little over 24 hours after release, the YouTube count is sitting just beneath 18 million views. No one who watches this video watches it only once.
Credited on the track are Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Blocboy JB, and Swae Lee from Rae Sremmurd. You can hear these men – and the echo of Culture, but it’s Gambino who commands your attention.
The content of “This is America” is too much to encapsulate here or anywhere, because what Glover has achieved is a dressing-down of atmosphere, and a dismantling of the core for something metaphysical. Beyond the concrete of real world events the artist addresses the internal, as well as the external landscape. Yes, all artists pursue this ambition – but the audacity of this piece, and the scale of the subject is rarely attempted, and seldom achieved with such charisma or grace.
Somehow, somewhere there’s an origin story for this track, but for all the power of the artist’s performance, and the integrity of the writing – the track is not his. The sense is that something is being channeled, refined, and presented. The track is bigger than the artist, his resume or world-view. Not only is “This is America” high art, it’s arguably amongst the most important pieces of work to come in recent memory.
Opening with an over-shiny, grotesquely-romanticized work-song. “We just want to party / party just for you / we just want the money / money just for you” Glover lampoons the caricature of the working slave. The video – directed by Hiro Murai – shows the artist shirtless, in gold chains and a quasi-goofing in Jim Crow dance-pose. A bulging white eye. Something is not right. Here, and the rest of the track there are waves of expected projection, and horrific normality. This cheery black fellow is dancing for us. This cheery black fellow just snapped, and shot a blindfolded man in the head. The place that the artist explores is the place between those two distinct realms – a place where we scramble for a true sense. What is the meaning of all of this?
There have been a number of big musical landmarks in recent years – jaw-dislocating tracks that accomplished a kind of shock-and-awe. Beyoncé with Lemonade, Jay-Z’s “Story of O.J”, Eminem’s freestyle “The Storm”. These tracks assembled real-world events, but they did so through the prism of the individual. Beyoncé presented her own experiences and aligned those with the history of the black female in American culture. Jay-Z – the same, but through the male perspective, and his own deviations from matrimonial oaths. Eminem’s anti-Trump rhetoric hung a line that the rapper drew in the sand, but his vitriol still centered on the audience’s relationship with HIM, Marshall Mathers.
What Glover does is present “This Is America” through his alter-ego. This cannot be about Glover. This is another voice, from deeper than ego, constructed of the needs of the audience. In being Childish Gambino, Glover is afforded a higher view. He can offer a removed and deeper sense of the issue, rather than just the view of his own perspective. He achieves greater sincerity, and greater urgency through the construct of artifice. It’s genius.
Lyrically, “This Is America” cascades through a checklist of the ills of the current landscape. Specific to the black experience, but affecting the whole, we learn “Grandma told me / Get your money, Black man” – a line spun in repeat; it haunts. This is the stuff of subjugation, inescapable prejudice, and damning self-awareness. If we resign to this institutionalized distraction how will liberation come?
The visual story unfolds through a sequence of overly-hygienic metaphors. Uniformed school children dance in support of the narration. A church choir sings happily. Saccharine dance-moves give the people what they think they want. Only some of these people are shot down. A riot unfolds in the background. Cop cars burn. These things happen, but not entirely in focus; they remain mostly in the background. The kids film terror on their cell-phones. They move on quickly with life. These things are confusing, unsettling; threatening to touch the process in a more direct way. Gambino lights a blunt and climbs up to dance on top of a boring car in a warehouse filled with randomly parked boring cars. The boring cars look just like every boring car we see every time we pass a traffic-stop where a human being may or may not be murdered by a cop.
“This Is America” dropped at the tail-end of a week where the land of pop culture and beyond was locked in debate over the tweeting habits, and woeful opinions of Kanye West. West, who was once looked to for the kind of guidance issued here, has dissolved his own throne. They say that a genius can take a complicated issue and make it simple for society. West has spent the last couple of years over-complicating his intention. Meanwhile, Childish Gambino has levelled up. The closing thirty seconds of this video articulate, perfectly, the core of the issue.
Glover announced that Childish Gambino’s upcoming fourth album will be his last. If that’s true “This Is America” lands as an underlining of the greatness of his project. This deliberate unraveling of the mainstream, and it’s expectations of a black artist, is a masterstroke.