Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” Is the Song That Defines 2018
As this year winds down we’ve recapped its highlights to bring you the best of 2018 in fashion, sneakers, music, movies and more.
Remember when Donald Glover was just the guy from Community? In the past few years, Glover has carved himself a unique niche in the maelstrom of late-‘10s American culture, through his award-winning comedy/drama Atlanta and his genre-bending, thought-provoking hip-hop as his rapper alter ego Childish Gambino. Through the ‘90s and ‘00s, it used to be that for rap to have a social message, it had to be serious, sometimes almost dour; the domain of backpack kids and college radio listeners.
Now, artists like Gambino, along with peers like Anderson .Paak and J. Cole, have resoundingly bucked that trend, taking their political rhetoric, delivered in kaleidoscope beats and rhymes that are as evocative as they are self-aware, to the top of the charts. As the world seems to descend further and further into unmitigated chaos, the capitalist fantasy of cars, women, and bling that fueled hip-hop’s mainstream aesthetic for the past few decades has dissipated, and now even seems a little ridiculous, as if it’s a tad unbelievable that we were ever that concerned with chrome rims and diamond-encrusted grills to begin with. Now, when you see a SoundCloud rapper raise a brick of $100 bills to their ear like a telephone, it feels more like their stockpiling for the apocalypse than running to the strip club.
So yes, if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that the world is a scary place. It’s difficult to find hope, let alone optimism, when you’re constantly bombarded with grisly images of violence and decay, with strident heralds of our own pending demise blaring from every media source available. Why get up and go to work when the polar ice caps are going to melt before you even reach retirement age? What could possibly be the point of reviewing a hip-hop single under that amount of existential duress? It would appear that Childish Gambino has been asking himself similar questions. Great artists thrive in times of social, economic, and political hardship, because they are the only ones able to translate their negative emotions into something constructive. And not only was Gambino able to deconstruct his horror and disgust at the actions of his own country and transform them into a commercial and critical success, he created the year’s most essential piece of popular music in the process, an extremely bittersweet swan song to a nation on the brink of collapse. In the end, it only took him three simple words to cut through the noise and force us all to watch and listen: this is America.
It’s almost impossible to separate “This Is America” from its incendiary video, which racked up 13 million views in 24 hours and unleashed a torrent of think-pieces and academic dissections that would last for weeks. And the two shouldn’t be separated, really – the video is chock full of Easter eggs and hidden meanings, giving an important illustration to the song’s already deep and rich imagery. However, as a song, “This Is America” more than stands on its own merit, an expertly produced, performed, and executed piece of rap that pulls from trap, electro, folk and gospel. Part fucked-up resignation, part distress signal, the song swings jarringly between two diametrically opposed moods: beginning with a jubilant chorus reminiscent of ‘80s Afropop, the beat falls out from under you in the first verse, giving way to dark, rattling trap. “This is America,” Gambino states matter-of-factly. “Don’t catch you slippin’ now.” If this line were coming from a white man in a MAGA hat, it would sound threatening; here it’s just a fact of life, there is nothing left to safeguard.
As the beat pulses onwards, Gambino’s simple rhymes highlight more absurdity: “Look how I’m livin’ now/ Police be trippin’ now/ This is America/ Guns in my area.” Just when you assume that the song has reached its nihilistic nadir, it shifts again, right back to the choir, enthusiastically chanting: “Grandma told me/ Get that money, black man!” Musically, it’s a tightrope walk, but also thematically, it represents the balancing act that every African-American goes through while living in a country where their oppression is not only routine, but integral. White America loves our culture, our music, our dancing, and always has, but can’t seem to get it together to lift a collective finger when our young men are being slaughtered by cops, when our communities are the ones the most affected by systemic violence. An allegorical shuck-and-jive is only ever one beat away from the stark realization that our humanity is only as good as our cultural value at any given moment, and the inevitability of that conclusion can feel almost revelatory in its bleakness. In the “This Is America” video, Gambino joyfully performs several popular black dance trends as the world crumbles around him, as if to say, ‘Well, fuck it! What have any of you ever done for me?’
The choir itself is a meta-commentary on the role of black men in America. Comprised of BlocBoy JB, 21 Savage, Slim Jxmmi, Quavo, and Young Thug (who reappears solo in the song’s coda), it’s a real hit list of rap’s established new class of superstars, and yet their much-deserved wealth and success has done nothing to take them out of white supremacy’s crosshairs. They are subjected to the same cycle of resignation, apathy, and despair as the rest of us. These featured rappers don’t appear in the video, giving them an air of an anonymous Greek chorus, exponentially multiplying in the background. Herein lies the genius of “This Is America:” not only a fantastic song, its mere existence solidifies its message. Like all era-defining protest songs, the fact that it even needs to be said at all goes to show how dire the situation has become.
“This Is America” was meant to be a between-album holdover single for Childish Gambino – instead, it may be looked back on as the defining moment of Donald Glover’s musical career. Earlier this year, Young Thug divulged that Gambino’s upcoming full-length, which supposedly won’t include “This Is America,” would be his last. If that’s indeed the case, it’s a shame, since it seems like Gambino is just now maturing into the type of recording artist America – and the world – is in desperate need of.
In the last few minutes of the “This Is America” video, when the pandemonium has died down and Young Thug’s vocoder vocals chime in for a surprisingly lulling outro, Gambino is seen running like a bat out of hell with an expression of sheer terror while being chased through a darkened warehouse by a gang of white men. Like a deleted scene from Get Out, it reads like a horror film, perhaps the one so many Americans wake up to every single day. “You just a black man in this world/ You just a barcode, ayy”, sings Young Thug as Gambino races for his life, and you’re left to wonder: are we finally waking up? Is this, at long last, the moment where America takes a good, hard look at itself in the mirror, slaps on some makeup, and starts handling its shit? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s nearly 2019 and it’s time to do something, even if it means escaping through the dark and never looking back.
Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” topped our ranking of the 50 Best Songs of 2018. See the full list right here.