In the wake of a Kanye-fueled media storm that’s given America a distraction from far more pertinent matters, Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, has returned with a boom in the form of a profound music video for his new single, “This is America,” a visual feast that satirizes the very notion of celebrity in a time of racial turmoil.
The title says it all: this is Gambino’s State of the Union — the state of rap, the state of the nation, and the state of his own stardom.
We’re lulled in with a pleasant folk-soul ditty reminiscent of 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” performed by a friendly looking guitarist that assures us, promises us that this is all for fun, we’re just here to dance, sing, and get the bag.
But something’s off. Glover’s face contorts with a forced happiness that lets you know that this is anything but a party. Maybe he doesn’t feel like dancing after all.
Then, in a feminine, Bugs Bunny-esque pose, Gambino shoots and kills the guitarist—the first of many victims to come.
The song jerks into a seriously sinister trap banger as soon as the bullet leaves the gun and all hell breaks loose. Gambino begins rapping glamourous struggle bars punctuated by ad-libs from Young Thug, 21 Savage, Quavo, Rae Sremmurd’s Slim Jxmmi and BlocBoy JB and continues his androgynous dancing, but now it’s ironic, defiant, even:
“How you like me now?” he seems to ask through the whites of his eyes.
The singing was a lie.
Gambino is the focal point throughout almost the entirety of the music video, but the background is where the point of it all becomes clear. Intentionally obscured is a smorgasbord of utter insanity as police riots, black youth shooting money guns atop middle class cars, a masked man riding a white horse, and the sounds of violent protestation. Through it all, director and Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai makes sure the song and its star are the focus. Shit is going down (including a possible allusion to the 2015 Charleston church shooting), but at least we have a catchy tune to distract us for a while until it all blows over… right?
The song itself is a simple-but-poignant set of musings concerning the conditions Black Americans can face when struggling for their own piece of the Dream. Gambino sees Guns, gangs, and Gucci as part and parcel of the trappings of a system that hasn’t quite caught up to the notion that everyone deserves to be a participant. In and of itself, it’s a hard-hitting song with a cool delivery and cold lines. It’s a standard trap anthem with some jarring soul and gospel diversions between its verses.
Coupled with the video, however, it all begins to become a farce: What good is an Hermés belt if you’re gunned down in public? Conversely, of what use is an Uzi if you finally get the wealth you’ve killed for? What really matters when the world is collapsing around you?
Young Thug gets a highlight in the track’s coda that accompanies visuals of Gambino running shit-scared from the blurred figures in a darkened hallway, leaving us with a sense of hopelessness despite the success:
“You just a Black man in this world
You just a barcode, ayy
You just a Black man in this world
Drivin’ expensive foreigns, yeah”
Once again, Childish Gambino has delivered a wholly realized vision that leaves its audience excited for whatever comes next. This is what it looks like when a superstar hits their prime, and it comes to us at the perfect time.
It’s ‘Bino season. Don’t get caught slippin’.