“Don’t overthink, bro” – In this sweltering political climate, where countless “snowflakes” and SJWs teem, there is no greater pop cultural crime than overthinking and over-reading. Nevermind the truism that the very act of reading is a political act in and of itself. For the greater good of sparing ourselves the indignity of emanating corniness of Macklemorean proportions or sounding the alarm at every perceived pinprick sleight, we keep it chill for the most part. But life is life – some circumstances aren’t chill, as are some texts. Childish Gambino‘s new song, “This Is America”, isn’t a chill song. It doesn’t even sound chill – it’s not “Redbone”. This is not two years ago; this is the screaming, fiery, horrifying maw of the now in which we’re chewed and crushed on repeat. This is a song you can’t over-read because its extreme vision unpacks and lays everything bare for you.
The track arrived in the ether yesterday, along with a brutally powerful Hiro Murai-directed visual that very compellingly magnified its blast radius. It’s rumoured to enter the cultural bloodstream in a fuller form that is Gambino’s last album CG4. But this review will not concern itself with the video, whose merits are even more obvious and immediate. We’re searching within the song that channels blood into a piece where every image on every frame is politicised and hanging from a tree.
But there’s one image and scene whose contextual depth serves as a beacon for understanding the truth of this song: A jaunty Gambino dances into the opening scene, matching the all-too-familiar and cliched trope of a sumptuous work song – but every line is the inverse of what a work song is: “We just wanna party / Party just for you / We just want the money / Money just for you” – until he pulls a gun from behind him and shoots a man with a bag over his head. As a jet of viscera blasts across the frame, the song evolves into a rumbling trap banger, bassy and swaggering. This is the moment of rupture that the song springs from.
The newly encountered sonics are menacing but dashingly so. Because, at this point, we aren’t only desensitised to violence, we actively seek it out in the entertainment that we consume – This shit hard, bro. But this whole song is indictment of attractive surfaces. You don’t need the music video to feel Gambino’s rage about the hierarchies, ideologies and institutions that’ve shaped the context in which such flash is made, packaged and distributed to the masses. High-tempo trap is contemporary hip-hop’s most visible veneer. But hip-hop used to exist as an idiom of African American transcendence – now it’s pop.
That’s why, each time guns pop in this video, the beat shifts. Reading, listening, consuming – the chains that bind are also a means to break them. But Gambino’s vision is darker than that. Where is redemption in a scenario where million-selling tough-talk rap of the “Yeah, this is America (woo, ayy) / Guns in my area (word, my area) / I got the strap (ayy, ayy)”-variant not just coincides but exists partly because “Police be trippin’ now (woo)”? One other thing: All those ad libs – symptoms of street talk – are symbols of the second-tier / second-class status of street lives, bracketed, boxed in and not as important as the rest. But, as always, when that street shit plays in the club, we get lit, bro! There’s even an emphatic repetition of “hunnid bands” and “contraband” of Migos-and–Lil Pump-approaching similarity. This is participatory oppression at a cyclical level. #Culture is the smokescreen and poisoned chalice.
Who benefits from all this? Gambino responds on the refrain: “Grandma told me / Get your money, Black man (get your money) (x2)“. So, NOT the black man.
Now, this story has been told before. But the timing of Gambino’s screed is crucial. Hip-hop now stands amongst pop culture’s $pectacles – but there’s a price to be paid for that. Kanye West outlined all this in brilliant, florid fashion on “All Falls Down” in 2004. But we’ve been seeing a different Kanye of late. His messaging has confounded many, as his alignment with Donald Trump’s “dragon energy”. But Gambino isn’t a nitwit demagogue assigning culpability here. “This Is America” is an update of Kanye’s door-kicking revelations on “All Falls Down”. Back in 2004, Kanye showed the world how self-aware he was in lines such as, “Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious / That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches /Rollie’s and Pasha’s done drove me crazy“. Today, Gambino diagnoses that enduring attitude and state of mind with the unflinching proclamation, “You just a Black man in this world / You just a barcode, ayy You just a Black man in this world / Drivin’ expensive foreigns, ayy”. It goes without saying that this condition isn’t exclusive to rap superstars. The implied way out is a total, ground-up, perception-change. But that’s a faraway possibility in the universe of the song.
The credits reveal that Young Thung, 21 Savage, Quavo, Blocboy JB and Rae Sremmurd‘s Swae Lee all feature on the track. But besides Thug’s distinct yowl that appears fleetingly, you wouldn’t know that these other rappers were on the song. Gambino is the cynosure here. He’s thoroughly in command of ordering the chaos between the lines. “This Is America” is yet another notch in his never-ending hot streak. Only now, his figure is cast in relief against the backdrop of a world going up in flames. If his platform-spanning genius is the new normal, so are the bonfires his art stems from.
Watch the video below: