Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Childish Gambino – This is America

And this is your #1 single, America.


Jibril Yassin: Listening to this without the video makes you realize just how much praise we’ve thrown at Donald Glover for essentially remaking Mother. It’s just a shame the song feels like a patchwork of different moods: the capable and effortless singing and the passable rap schemes clashing at each possible moment. It’s chaos supplanted by a million Atlanta rapper adlibs featured here — notable because his past work revelled in his outsiderdom status. Now he relishes in being a medium. What the fuck does Childish Gambino wants us to think about him? The Billboard #1 means that once again somehow Young Thug wins so I’ll take that. 

Ryo Miyauchi: Hearing that clatter of noise ripping the seams of the Coloring Book gospel felt viscerally thrilling at first. Yet the momentum of it soon died down as Donald Glover muttered ad libs in placement of real lyrics. If this excitement and then immediate bore from violence was the point, then it relies way too much on its visuals to get that across. As pure audio, it’s fragments of unfinished ideas coalesced into what barely passes as a song, and those fragments depend upon too much subtext for it to hopefully bear some meaning.

Tim de Reuse: Every word of the lyrics and every frame of the music video begs to be picked apart; that’s Charleston, that’s Parkland, that’s the way white Americans revere gun culture. It’s an assault on all fronts, and despite the pull of its main sonic gimmick, an assault on all fronts cannot be incisive. So it contains no arguments or calls to action, working mainly as a mood piece for anxiety, instability, dehumanization, and dread, writhing into itself, and young Thug’s haunting outro is the only place where the horrors alluded to are felt rather than just referenced or replicated. Is it effective? Well, it certainly leaves an impression, but it’s not as focused as it could be, and to get any kind of solid message out of it you’ve got to put in just as much as you’re going to get out.

Alfred Soto: A compelling statement of protest that doesn’t mind flirting with the exploitative and why not — the video, that is. A fitfully compelling protest whose tonal variety compensates for its lyrical shortcomings — that’s “This is America.” Like many #1s, it’s a vessel for listeners. Few hits in the twenty-first century benefit from a cultural moment like Donald Glover’s. This is America? No — this is America.

Will Rivitz: There isn’t much I can say about “This Is America” that Doreen St. Félix hasn’t already said, so let me talk about its place as an “ambiguous document” on terms in which I feel slightly more authoritative: As a nuanced, complicated, and enigmatic dissection of Black existence — which is about as specifically as one can describe the song and its accompanying visuals, since any narrower portrayal risks an uneasily reductive summary of its purpose — Gambino’s newest is excellent, aesthetically compelling and subtly difficult in all the right ways. As a pop song that’s raced to number one on the charts with the force of a “God’s Plan,” it’s less successful, so instrumentally and allusionally dense that, aside from Gambino’s chorus and ad-libs, even a dozen listens in I still have trouble tracking its structure — and a pop song that isn’t easily accessible tends to fail at providing the populist unification that the best of that ilk inflict on a club at 1 AM. As a song, period, it’s also a little weak: for all its bassy bluster, its aggression is pallid compared to the distortion of a Clipping or a Death Grips, and its Yeezus-cum-TLOP blend of gospel and snarl doesn’t quite reach what made both of those albums so excellent. This, as much as I do love it at times, is what makes the single-number rating system we have on this site a smidge simplistic: we’re rating songs based on a singular scale with which we try to summarize all of its qualities into a one- or two-character final word. On “This is America,” the ambiguity that St. Félix characterizes so well can’t properly be reduced to a score, because the song succeeds and half-succeeds and half-fails on so many disparate levels that it doesn’t really do the song justice. That said, I’ve listened to this one the past two weeks about as much as I listened to “Plug Walk” last month, and I gave that one a [7], so here we are.

Stephen Eisermann: There’ve been more than enough think pieces and Twitter threads about on this song that I won’t try analysis. Instead, I want to highlight how impotent the song is without the accompanying video: how it’s a great addition to the accompanying video. This song is good, sure, but the video makes it great.

Julian Axelrod: “This is America” feels like an anomaly in so many ways: It’s a song that meets Donald Glover’s outsize ambitions, which have previously made him feel like an auteur in search of a masterpiece. Its popularity is partly due to an eye-catching viral video that justifies the hype and amplifies its song’s message rather than overshadowing it. And most impressively, it’s a cultural and political statement that actually feels suited to how we live now. The song builds and buckles under its oppressively sunny tension, like a powder keg with a smiley face plastered on the front. But check that title again: While “This is America” is clearly a product of our current climate, its anger is nothing new. As long as you live in a country that refuses to let you breathe, the only true rebellion will be dancing on its feet.

Jonathan Bradley: Who is Childish Gambino? This is what I ask from “This is America.” Because we know Donald Glover: he’s Troy from Community, he’s a trash punchline rapper, he’s a shockingly impressive nu-funk singer, he’s Atlanta‘s dramedy auteur of the late 2010s. And now he’s the ghost of Kendrick Lamar (because Kendrick invented political raps for the ’10s the way Chuck D did for the ’80s), he’s Earn Marks, he’s this shuckin’ and jivin’ shooter playing callous with life. Or has he surpassed performance; is “This is America” any black man playing the best role a white society can ask of him? “Have you seen ‘This is America’,” people ask of me, and I say, “no, I still have some episodes of Atlanta left to watch.” As protest, aren’t they as meaningful? As video, “This is America” doesn’t resolve. Is this America? Well, song as shareable content is not new; pop history is articulated through tunes that capture an audience’s spirit for their times. As song: the choir is lovely.

Joshua Minsoo Kim:  Remember when a bunch of white people thought it was OK to roll their eyes at Donald Glover for feeling “too white for Blacks, too Black for whites” on Camp? Some people dished out laundry lists of other Black people who were, in their minds, definitive proof of Glover being a fraud. Invalidating his experiences was a sure way to make him — and other Blacks who felt similarly — even more insecure about their identity. Here we are, seven years later, and Donald Glover’s finally “made it” according to the standards set by white gatekeepers and lay internet folk (one and the same?), and it seems as if people consider the vivid depictions here as being astronomically different — more artful, more profound — than what was present in his earlier discography. It’s been stated that “This is America” is not the lead single to the upcoming Childish Gambino album, indicating that this is a standalone product meant to be engaged with both aurally and visually. Glover knows: a video is going to be far more affecting simply because of how people approach one. Music is far more susceptible to passivity; people can hear, but they don’t listen. Still, it’s impossible to ignore the prevailing pernicious attitudes that lead to uniform declarations of “This is America” as a powerful political statement. Does everything need to be so painfully explicit and overt in its intentions to qualify as such? There’s a sort of dysconscious racism underpinning how writers and fans are content with categorizing “This is America” and Donald Glover as political while denying such a label to the various rappers who provide ad-libs here. So let’s break it down: Young Thug provided one of last year’s most heartbreaking verses while mourning the murder of Keith Troup. BlocBoy JB dedicated his recent mixtape to Simi, a friend who died by gunfire. On “Work Hard,” Quavo proudly declares that despite dropping out of school, he’s rich enough now that his mom doesn’t need to work. Slim Jxmmi says essentially the same thing on “Brxnks Truck” and unabashedly celebrates his affluence on “Growed Up.” Kodak Black, who’s namedropped here, explains how people don’t see potential in him because he’s “a project baby” on “Misunderstood,” and spends another song later on Project Baby 2 sounding absolutely suicidal. And 21 Savage’s “Bank Account,” one of the most popular rap songs of last year, saw the rapper elegantly illustrating how being a successful Black man doesn’t mean you can suddenly present yourself as vulnerable. It’s funny: that everyone here is relegated to ancillary elements in the instrumentation ensures that people won’t decry the presence of a less “conscious” (i.e. less “worthy,” less “real”) rapper. Glover understands this, and this decision is an effective middle ground between making significant impact and allowing all these other rappers to have a voice. It’s moving because Glover’s doing the exact opposite of what his Camp detractors did: unifying, validating, and empowering. The result is a beautiful tapestry that seems to be delivering a message hidden underneath a more obvious one. Every Black rapper is making political music. Every Black rapper is showing what it means to be Black in America. Every Black rapper deserves the attention to detail that has been poured upon this song and video. To think otherwise — to discredit and disparage the truths of these Black people’s lives — is to disagree with the more obvious realities presented in the video. It’s happening, and that is America too.

Reader average: [4.8] (10 votes)

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4 Responses to “Childish Gambino – This is America”

  1. I’m with Ryo (albeit grateful for JMK’s reminder to not skimp on context) and would add that listening to this with the Spotify/Genius “Behind the Lyrics” tool is… probably not a good idea.

  2. Really excellent set of blurbs all around here.

  3. Very good day for italics.