This Is America
July 14, 2018
Todd plays "This Is America" on the piano.
THIS IS AMERICA - CHILDISH GAMBINO
A pop(?) song review
Todd: Boy, am I late to the party.
Childish Gambino: This is America, Don't catch you slippin' now
Todd (VO): Just two months ago, "This is America" dropped like an atom bomb into the music world. It was all anyone was talking about. If I were better at this, I would've dropped some thoughts on it right away.
Todd: I dunno, wanted to marinate in it for awhile.
Todd (VO): Maybe I waited too long. I thought I had more time, but as soon as I started writing this episode, it started sliding off the charts and now it's all the way down to (#50)...wait, what? Nah, that's not the real chart position, that's just Drake squatting his fat ass on the charts with his stupid album. If I were smart, I'd talk about that, but I'd rather eat hot nails than talk about Drake anymore.
Todd: And...this isn't a song I wanted to mash out a rushed hot take on.
Todd (VO): This is Music Critic on Hard mode, not gonna be like "ha ha, will.i.am has a stupid haircut" today.
Todd: No, this is about serious and deep topics, y'all...I think...I'm not sure. Actually, let's go back.
Clip of "3005"
Childish Gambino: I'll be right by your side, 'til 3005, hold up
Todd (VO): Before we start this episode, we need to put some respect on this because this is the year of Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino. [clip from The Martian] Now, Gambino has been around for a while, he's mostly known for his acting, but in the last couple of years his music career has skyrocketed, especially his critically acclaimed "Awaken My Love" album, and now this year he has truly started receiving his deserved recognition as one of the greatest artists of our day.
Todd: Yes, let us now honor this man...
Todd (VO): ...a man of true genius, a downright virtuoso talent in this day and age, a visionary who has changed the way we look at the world.
Derrick Comedy: Did you pour Axe body spray on this dildo?
Donald Glover: Like, a can and a half.
Todd: ...was I even joking with that phrase? I honestly don't know.
Todd (VO): I know Donald Glover absolutely thinks of himself in those terms. He just keeps sounding more and more comically pretentious in every interview. But if you want a true gauge into Glover's talent, just know that when he was on Community, he was so good that Chevy Chase stopped being an asshole piece of shit long enough to give him a compliment or two. So, there you go, extremely high praise! But he has clearly gotten more ambitious in the past two or three years, and this is a culmination of that. Even moreso than his trippy artsy comedy series Atlanta. Now, for every other black man, being Lando Calrissian would be the high point of their career, but that'll be just a minor blip in this year. That's how big he is right now.
Todd: And here we are. I mean, just listen to it.
Childish Gambino: We just wanna party, party just for you, we just wanna party, party just for you, This is America
Childish Gambino: Look what I'm whippin' now
Todd (VO): So yeah, this is not a subtle song and it's not a subtle video. The entire thing is filled with extremely loaded imagery. Actually, a lot of it is kinda subtle, like the Confederate soldier pants he was wearing, or the Pale Horse of Death in the background, or the literal Jim Crow dancing. There are six billion articles and videos explaining it all, but the most important stuff doesn't really need a whole lot of explination I think.
Childish Gambino: Get your money, Black man, Get your money, Black man, Black man
Todd (VO): That's not hard to figure out. It's extremely provocative a piece. For me, the best and most profound imagery in the whole video is when Glover comes through the door with some pizzas and the whole apartment's on fire. This is America indeed. Really powerful stuff.
Donald Glover: Nooooooo!
Todd (VO): For real, it's been a long ass time since we had a song like this on the charts, something that says the things that need to be said. Todd: I mean, check out the lyrics, see what it has to say about America.
Childish Gambino: This is America, Don't catch you slippin' now, Don't catch you slippin' now, Look what I'm whippin' now, I'm so fitted, I'm on Gucci, I'm so pretty, I'm gon' get it, Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands, Contraband, contraband, contraband, I got the plug in Oaxaca, They gonna find you like Blocka
Todd: I...I don't know...I'm not hear...ok, let me say this. This is explicitly about being a black man in America.
Childish Gambino: Get your money, Black man, Get your money, Black man
Todd (VO): That is not something that I can personally speak on...
Todd: ...as I am not black. (As far as YOU know.) Can we kill this joke? Haven't we beaten this into the ground? I am not black.
Todd (VO): In case it wasn't excruciatingly obvious by everything I have ever thought and said, no, I'm not black. I'm a shitload of other things, but no, black isn't one of them. So, my point is, this isn't for, or about, me, so I may be about to get all of this extremely wrong. But, that was also true of...
Todd: ...literally everything I have ever said, and y'all still watch that, so, you know what, here we go. I'm not sure what exactly this song is trying to say.
Childish Gambino: Police be trippin' now, Yeah, this is America
Todd (VO): It certainly seems like it's saying something, but...I can't really nail down what exactly that is. Todd: And the only reason I know for sure that it's trying to say something is because of the title.
Childish Gambino: This is America
Todd (VO): Just on its own, "This is America" as a title strikes me as hilariously edgelord. "Ha ha, this is America, am I freaking you out?" Or at least it would strike me that way under normal circumstances, but you know, on the other hand, [clips of anti-Donald Trump protests] we live in absolutely appaling fucking times, and someone needs to say fucking something.
Todd: I can't be like, "criticizing America, that's so overdone...
Todd (VO): ...[image of an American flag waving on a pole] let's all wave the flag and eat apple pie and [clip of Rick Derringer - "Real American"] blast the Hulk Hogan theme." Yeah, that's not really where I'm at these days. And if you've managed to not spend the last year and a half being forcibly reminded of America's failures at every goddamn turn...
Todd: ...please, for the love of God, please lend me your bubble that keeps you from ever knowing or hearing about anything everywhere.
Todd (VO): Because I remember, during the Iraq war 15 years ago, where everyone was like, "Welp, this all sucks, but at least we'll get some good music out of it!"
Clip of Nickelback - Photograph
Chad Kroeger: Look at this photograph
Todd (VO): We got jack shit. We got a couple of Green Day songs and that was it.
Todd: Now these days, music doesn't seem to be quite so unconnected...
Todd (VO): ...the national mood is, in fact, filtering into the Hot 100. You can see it altering the popular landscape. [Clip of Pharrell Williams's...] One of the biggest hits 4 years ago was literally titled "Happy," and [...and XXXTENTACION's...] one of the biggest hits this year is literally titled "Sad!"
XXXTENTACION: I'm sad and low, yeah
Todd: But, actual social commentary, that's been harder to come by.
Todd (VO): So that's why this exists. So, at the very least, thank you Donald for putting something out there.
Todd: My issue is...I don't quite get what the commentary actually is.
Todd (VO): I'm clear that it's specifically about being black in America.
Childish Gambino: Get your money, Black man, Get your money, Black man
Todd (VO): Get your money, black man.
Childish Gambino: Don't catch you slippin' now
Todd (VO): Don't catch you slippin'. Uh...America is harder on black men. Black men have to work harder because America will punish a slip-up. Todd: They have to get money, 'cause America stole all their generational wealth through centuries of abuse...I think
Childish Gambino: We just wanna party, party just for you
Todd (VO): Black people want to party, but they can't...or they are partying but it's all an act. It's all, you know, it's all a show for white audiences. Or they're not being allowed to party. Todd: ...I dunno, I feel like I'm doing all the work here.
Childish Gambino: Yeah, yeah, I'ma go into this, Yeah, yeah, this is guerilla
Todd (VO): Ok, here's one thing that I know I'm getting.... Todd: ...Donald Glover really likes Migos.
Donald Glover: And I really wanna thank the Migos, for making "Bad and Boujee," like that's the best song...ever
Todd (VO): Like, a lot. A lot a lot. They were on his show, and this song is clearly influenced by them. It doesn't sound anything like his other records. His main influence used to be Kanye. Not anymore, obviously, which is a shame, 'cause we could use a non-awful Kanye. But this is clearly Migos, it's got the same flow, and that's actually Migos themselves providing the ad-libs. Them and a bunch of other famous rappers. Kinda sounds to me like Gambino is kinda jealous of all of them.
Todd: Especially if you go back and listen to that first album, which is all about being a nerd who's not black enough.
Clip of "Backpackers"
Childish Gambino: That well-spoken token, who ain't been heard, The only white rapper who's allowed to say the N-word
Todd: Heh heh, well he sure as Hell doesn't have that problem now! Todd (VO): I dunno, I feel like what we wound up with is a Migos song with a big "THIS IS SOCIAL COMMENTARY" sticker on it. I see people saying like "well, you know, what it is is it's about gun violence in America."
Childish Gambino: Guns in my area, I got the strap
Todd: Yeah, in the same way that all gangsta songs are about that.
Todd (VO): I'm doing all this shit trying to decode it, and...I feel like I kinda got tricked.
Todd: Like you could pull this on any song.
Clip of "Boom Boom Pow" mixed with "This is America"
will.i.am: Gotta get that, Gotta get that (This is America), Boom boom boom, Gotta get that
Todd: Saying that America forces its citizens to get the boom boom boom. Very layered. Profound.
Todd (VO): And it's weird, because I do think this song is, in fact, saying something, it's just that...the message isn't in words? It's just all in the vibe. Like, all that happy singing choir shit, sounds like something that'd play in the background of a Paul Simon song from the 80's, you know, gospel choir...
Todd: ...sounds like the Fraggle Rock theme.
Childish Gambino: We just wanna party
Fraggles: Worry's for another day
Todd: See, it's all positivity. And I've been watching music critics react to things for a good while.
Clip of Arrested Development - "People Everyday"
Todd (VO): And at basically all times, they go nuts for shit that sounds like this. And some of it outlasts the test of time, but a lot of times it sounds like it's stupid or dated. Even the good stuff tends to get forgotten....
Todd: ...in favor of the gangsta shit that critics have dismissed as cliches.
Todd (VO): So, this part I get completely. "Ha ha, ahh yeah, yeah," fuck that shit, it's a lie, it's not really going on. In fact, I kinda feel like if you're listening to this song on Spotify, it kinda loses a lot. Not just because there's no visuals, but because you don't get the gunshot sounds. It needs those gunshots. So, in a way, stuff like Migos and Gucci Mane, which...does not pretend to be political at all, that kinda feels more honest about where we are.
Todd: Even I, an extremely not black person, got trap music all of a sudden, because...
Todd (VO): ...all the bad news has me in a low-key bad mood all the time, and all the angry music I tried to listen to is too rage-y, but Migos just hit the fuckin' spot. So to me, "This is America" feels like a defense of trap music, because this is the real Black America.
Todd: But other people say it's like a criticism of gangsta rap, and...I kinda hear that too.
Todd (VO): Like, he comes in there and he starts rapping about how he's so Gucci and guns and money. Just feels like, you know, is that it? Just materialism and ugliness? I mean, church murder ain't something to be proud of, you know. And there's a line at the end about being a barcode.
Young Thug: You just a black man in this world, You just a barcode, ayy
Todd (VO): Like, you're just another commodity, and going for more money just makes you a part of it. You don't feel like a badass listening to this, there's no closure or victory, it just ends unsettled and unhappy.
Todd: So, which is it? I dunno, it's complicated. Or maybe it's not complicated, it's just vague. It can...be whatever you want it to be.
Todd (VO): Call me slow and basic, but maybe I wanted something more concrete. And I'm not sure it's gonna last. It debuted at number 1, and now it's very quickly sliding back down after just a couple months.
Todd: I'm...just not sure how much replay value it has. I kinda wonder if most of the appeal was just shock value.
Todd (VO): I mean, Donald Glover is still a comedian. This song is, in a lot of ways, a joke. Like, him doing Michael Jackson's "Black or White" dance, that's a very dark joke.
Michael Jackson: It don't matter if you're black or white
Todd (VO): Don't matter if you're black or white. The fuck is that shit? See this, this is the world's most sarcastic dance. Honestly, I think the whole video is hilarious. Maybe you need a sick sense of humor. But even if it does not have any replay value as a single, does that make it a bad thing? I mean, it's definitely not a single, it doesn't have a chorus or anything. It feels more like an album track, something that kills in the context of a larger statement.
Todd: But...there is no album. In fact, the label says it's not gonna be on an album, if there ever even is another album.
Todd (VO): So who knows, ask me again at the end of the year. And even if I'm not sure what I think about this song, I do admire how weird and unconventional it is and how unsettling it is to listen to. Even if I don't understand it, I feel it just as an abstract wave of anxiety. So what if it fades off the charts quickly? It's not meant for that. You're not supposed to play it at parties. And obviously, this guy is an extremely talented artist who put together something of real value.
Todd: And I can tell you how I can tell. It's because he made a song about dealing drugs and no one responded with hysterical laughter.
Childish Gambino: Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands, Contraband, contraband, contraband
Todd: Donald Glover is not a drug dealer.
Donald Glover: And I was like, "Oh, I don't really like rap music, I really enjoy the soulful stylings of The Cranberries."
Todd: Trust me on this, I know the guy. I've been watching him for like 10 years. On this platform! He started here on YouTube! So, who knows? Maybe someday, I too will make grand provocative statements. Catch me 10 years from now with my big multimedia project, "Capitalism is Bullshit, Religion is a Lie, Fuck Art." [dances] No, I'm a clown, ignore me. [gunshot]
Closing Tag Song: "This is Not America" - David Bowie and Pat Metheny Group