By Eóin Donnelly
Trying to predict what Donald Glover will do next is like trying to guess the next outlandish opinion to emanate from Kanye West’s Twitter account. Glover, who grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, has a lot going on right now. For one thing, he’s playing Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, as well as Simba in the live-action version of The Lion King, and the second season finale of his TV show Atlanta, the most-watched comedy in FX’s history, will premiere this Thursday. For even our most celebrated entertainers, hosting Saturday Night Live to promote your role in the new Star Wars film is the pinnacle of success. But Donald Glover is not one of us. He never has been. Donald Glover, quite literally, is the host with the most. Actor, writer, director, stand-up comedian, satirist, singer, rapper, dancer, music producer- never has one person excelled in so many fields. The ultimate ATLien, Donald Glover is an extraordinary man among extraordinary men, and much of his SNL hosting debut appeared to be dedicated to proving just how multi-talented he really is. “I really can do anything”, Glover kept singing joyously in his opening monologue, like a modern-day Willy Wonka that realised his writing, rap flows and falsetto are just as sweet as his chocolate bars. He moved fluidly from comic set-up to boastful exposition, setting the tone for his one-man exhibition. “I’m great and these are all the reasons why”, he seemed to say, his vivacious energy and self-aware sense of humour offsetting any hint of arrogance. For a man so enthusiastic about parading his own greatness, he’s a really likeable guy. The night, however, would end up belonging to Childish Gambino.
I missed rapping Gambino. Childish Gambino, of course- to those living under a rock- is Glover’s musical alter-ego, a name he plucked from a Wu-Tang Clan rap name generator. Observing his career has been a strange experience. Personally, I’m an enormous fan of everything Gambino has done, but unlike Glover’s endeavours in TV and comedy, for the most part Gambino’s music has came under significant criticism. His debut album, Camp, was given an unjustly scathing 1.6/10 by Pitchfork, and although his sophomore effort Because The Internet was nominated for the Best Rap Album of the Year Grammy, it too failed to garner the kind of critical acclaim, mainstream exposure and universal adulation that he was getting everywhere else. Glover’s reign as new King of Primetime TV was assured by an immense creative streak in the past decade, starring as fan favourite Troy Barnes in Community, writing for Tina Fey’s hit sitcom 30 Rock and, most recently culminating in the creation of his own Golden Globe-winning show Atlanta. In the music world, however, it wasn’t until Gambino’s third album, Awaken, My Love!, that the rest of the world caught up to the Renaissance Man that’s been in front of us all along.
By eschewing rapping, 2016’s Awaken, My Love! placed a spotlight on a talent we didn’t even know we had: singing. Yeah, we’d heard him sing before, but not like this. Awaken, My Love! was George Clinton, it was Prince, it was Sly & the Family Stone, it was Bootsy Collins. ‘Redbone’, in spite of only peaking at number 12 on the Billboard 100, was in reality the year’s most ubiquitous sleeper hit, given a second life as so many songs are by a meme that ended up propelling the song to an Apple ad and Get Out’s opening credits. Five Grammy nominations followed. With both sides of the artistic coin now kingpins of their respective fields, finally Donald Glover and Childish Gambino had something in common.
Glover being Glover, however, Awaken, My Love! is not the beginning of a musical dynasty. His next album, he told Huffington Post, will be his last. “There’s nothing worse than like a third sequel, like a third movie and we’re like, “again?”, he said. “You know, I like it when something’s good and when it comes back there’s a reason to come back, there’s a reason to do that.” For that reason alone, ‘This Is America’ is a record worth paying attention to. For the debut single of what may well be Gambino’s final ever album, you better bet he would be making a statement.
Maybe Awaken was the Trojan horse album, because ‘This Is America’ is Gambino’s most political statement yet. It wasn’t the only song Gambino debuted on SNL. His first performance was a soulful , upbeat number in the vein of the title track from Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. Ostensibly titled ‘Saturday’, it’s worth noting that the track is not yet available on any streaming services. In hindsight, it feels like the first act- unless Awaken counts- in a grand ruse, the Gambino the public wants versus the Gambino they need. While Gambino was performing ‘Saturday’, another song was premiering on YouTube. It’s as memorable a song and video as you’re likely to hear all year, with sound and imagery that has been tattooed on my brain all morning. We should know Gambino isn’t the kind of creator to do the same thing twice. There will be no more 70’s soul homages. Gambino has went trap!
‘This Is America’ starts slowly, with a black and bearded man sitting at a chair and strumming guitar as the camera zooms in on a shirtless, shimmying Gambino contorting his face and body as he merrily moves through the warehouse. “Girl, you got me dancin’/Dance and shake the frame/We just wanna party/Party just for you”, he sings. All very innocent stuff. Don’t get used to it. The next time we see the mystery, carefree figure from the intro there is no guitar in sight and he has a bag over his head. Gambino, mid Jim Crow-style dance, reaches behind his back, pulls out a gun and executes him. “This is America/Don’t catch you slippin’ up.” Damn. Just like that, a joyful atmosphere can descend into horror in America. The nasty beat switch on ‘This Is America’ encapsulates that idea better than any politician’s speech ever could, as does the video, shot by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, who juxtaposes the joyful catharsis of black music and the terrifying reality of being a black man in America throughout. Lyrically, the song conveys the same idea, with Gambino’s pleasantly familiar RnB chorus stripped away for sinister trap snarls, distorted bass and belligerent triplet flows as suddenly as Gambino murders his own congregation. This is America, where guns are handled with more care than the human lives they cruelly destroy on a daily basis. This is America, where you keep dancing to not get shot. This is America, where no amount of black entertainment can truly distract from the peripheral mayhem going on just outside of the nucleus of black pop culture.
It’s a truly genius amalgamation of related ideas with many layers of subtext. Is Gambino critiquing the failures of the 2nd Amendment to protect American citizens? Is he satirising trap music’s gratuitous violence? Is he trying to reconcile the unifying, hopeful spirit of the soul music that inspired Awaken with the stultifying, savage reality of his home city Atlanta? It wouldn’t be the first time Glover has lended his literary gifts to hip-hop, with his debut album Camp concluding with a spoken word outro that directly leads into the screenplay that comprises the story of his second album, Because The Internet. It remains to be seen whether ‘This Is America’ is a standalone statement or part of a larger plan, with some reports insisting that it isn’t the first single of Gambino’s album, but its message feels far too resonant and well-executed not to be part of a larger strategy. ‘This Is America’ is a microcosm of the United States, where hip-hop reigns supreme as our generation’s most influential artform while its vast socio-political influence is exploited and over-simplified for a majority-white audience that only wants to engage with the ‘fun’ parts, and its progenitors and core fanbase still live in perennial fear of death. Sometimes the answer to pain is just to keep on dancing, but at what point does a convenient distraction become a self-indulgent vice that detracts from finding solutions? I don’t expect what is supposedly Gambino’s last album to provide us with all the answers, but at the very least it will pose some seriously relevant questions. ‘This Is America’ is arguably the most accurate depiction of life in President Donald Trump’s America to date, and the craziest thing of all is that it’s in all likelihood only a drawing of the red curtains before Gambino presents us with the real drama. Behold Childish Gambino: trap music’s first auteur.