If you somehow haven’t seen Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video yet, you’ve certainly read about it. Culture publications have dedicated tens of thousands of words to the video, which serves as a scathing indictment of America’s racism and obsession with — and subsequent desensitization to — gun violence, all to the tune of ebullient choir singing juxtaposed with booming trap beats.
Writers on this site and others have discussed at length the symbolism in “This Is America” with more depth and authority than I ever could. But the song and video also deserve to be evaluated in the context of Childish Gambino’s entire discography. It’s a hard pivot away from the retro funk and soul of his last album, 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!”, but it’s also the most authentic musical progression of his career.
Childish Gambino wasn’t always a critical darling. The musical alter ego of former 30 Rock writer and Community actor Donald Glover made for an easy punching bag for critics when he released his debut full-length album, Camp, in late 2011. Hip-hop purists doubted the authenticity of a successful actor and writer rapping about his struggles. Glover acknowledged his outsider status on songs like “All the Shine,” rapping, “Pitchfork only likes rappers who crazy or hood, man.”
Glover was neither. His music, a tender combination of rapping and singing over slick pop hooks, took cues from Kanye West and Drake. Rap labels wouldn’t touch him, so he signed with indie label Glassnote, which was better known for artists like Mumford & Sons and Two Door Cinema Club. And while Glover proved self-aware on Camp, his astute observations often landed alongside misogynistic boasts and gag-inducing punchlines, all delivered with a grating, nasally sneer. Glover was an underdog in the rap game, but he performed with an exaggerated chip on his shoulder that, coupled with his obvious creative versatility, made him sound precocious rather than genuine.
Still, despite its obvious flaws, Camp had a lovable charm and several indelible pop-rap gems, including “Fire Fly,” “Bonfire” and “Heartbeat.” Glover upped the ante on his sophomore album, 2013’s Because the Internet, a sprawling, richly produced smorgasbord of rap, R&B, funk and ambient soundscapes. He also released a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons and 72-page screenplay alongside the album, successfully wedding his talents for writing, acting, directing and making music.
The screenplay that accompanied Because the Internet centered around a protagonist called The Boy, who lives in a mansion and whiles away his days tweeting at celebrities and posting on WorldStarHipHop. Glover embodied The Boy on Because the Internet’s promotional campaign and subsequent Deep Web Tour, using his new album as a multi-sensory commentary on the ubiquitousness of the internet. Childish Gambino had reached a new creative peak, but he did it by creating a universe separate from Donald Glover.
After toeing the pop-rap divide for years, Childish Gambino released the combined mixtape/EP set STN MTN / Kauai in 2014. The former took cues from modern-day southern hip-hop, while the latter explored Glover’s sweetest pop tendencies, as on the sensual slow jam “Sober.” They were fun, if insubstantial, entries in Gambino’s discography, but they proved to be a red herring in his musical trajectory, as evidenced by his next full-length, 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!”
You could crudely describe “Awaken, My Love!” as the album where people decided Childish Gambino was actually good. Glover abandoned the his hip-hop roots in lieu of psychedelic funk and soul in the vein of Parliament-Funkadelic. (The album credits even reveal collaborations with George Clinton, Eddie Hazel, Fuzzy Haskins and Bootsy Collins of the legendary funk collective.) Bolstered by three excellent singles — the explosive “Me and Your Mama,” and sensuous R&B thumpers “Redbone” and “Terrified” — “Awaken, My Love!” earned several Grammy nominations, and “Redbone” took home the award for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
“Awaken, My Love!” was a masterstroke of musical virtuosity, but it was also, by default, a nostalgia record. It showcased Glover’s exponentially matured singing voice and ability to submerge himself in other genres of music, but it didn’t necessarily reflect Glover’s own views on the present or his take on modern musical trends. In the same way an actor can deliver a brilliant performance in a period piece without giving fans a glimpse into their own lives, Glover created a brilliant album that proved difficult to evaluate in the overall body of his creative work.
“This Is America” changes all that. Musically, it’s a vicious, urgent take on modern trap music, as Glover adopts the clipped, percussive flow of his contemporaries atop crackling 808s and rumbling bass. Director Hiro Murai — who has worked with Glover on his brilliant FX drama Atlanta — gives the video a grotesque surrealism, while Glover’s own dead-eyed delivery and possessed dancing makes it nearly impossible for viewers to look away.
Critically and commercially, “This Is America” is already an unequivocal success. But it’s also the most that a Childish Gambino project has ever felt influenced by Glover’s other creative endeavors. He’s honed his unflinching social commentary and macabre sense of humor over two seasons of Atlanta, and he’s keenly observed the changes to the hip-hop landscape since he last dabbled in the genre himself. He’s funneled all these outside influences into one cohesive, exhilarating, altogether unforgettable audiovisual experience.
Glover recently signed to RCA Records and inked a new publishing deal with Kobalt Music that will cover his next album, which he claims will be his last as Childish Gambino. “I like endings, I think they’re important to progress,” he told the press after his Grammy win in January. If the rest of Childish Gambino’s next album reaches the heights of “This Is America,” then it makes sense why Glover would want to retire his alter ego. Perhaps they’ll finally become one and the same.
Featured Image: Getty Images
Inset Image: AP Photo/File