In recent years, Childish Gambino has moved from main act to bit player in the sprawling Donald Glover portfolio. Gambino, originally a jokey rap vehicle, found mainstream success with the P-Funk pastiche of his 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!”, but that wider recognition coincided with Glover himself being increasingly praised for his skill set in full, rather than his individual talents. In his opening monologue for “SNL” this past weekend, even Glover veiled his own rapping past: “It all kinda worked out for me, I was on a show called ‘Community,’ I play Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars movie Solo, and if you’re black, I made ‘Atlanta’ and ‘Redbone,’” he joked. “I’m an actor, writer, and a singer,” he summarized. It’s hard to parse the value or intent of this constant omission of rap, especially given “Atlanta”’s deft focus on the rap industry, but one thing is clear: Childish Gambino, the rapper, has become an anachronism.
“This Is America,” then, is a bit of a reset. Here, he uses the ambivalent reception of black art to represent the tightrope of being black. Built on the sharp contrast between jolly, syncretic melodies and menacing trap cadences, the song presents Childish Gambino as confident and cutting. “This is America!” he chants as the song swings between harmony and discord. Choice background vocals embellish both moods: cherubic hums and ecstatic screams for the singing sections; and manic ad-libs for the rap verses, often provided by other rappers (21 Savage, Young Thug, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi, and Blocboy JB). Glover’s voice bridges the two worlds, dropping to an austere deadpan for his rapping and ascending to a syrupy coo for his singing. “Don’t catch you slippin’ up,” Glover warns as he pulls off the balancing act with ease. In his past music, this versatility would have been a humblebrag; here it becomes conflict.
The video for “This Is America,” directed by Glover’s frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, turns this tension into satire. Bare-chested and sprightly, Glover trots through a warehouse dancing and gunning people down; seamlessly transitioning between these activities, his face is inscrutable, hidden behind a smile. The video and song use the candor of trap to ground the rapture of black joy, and thus the ambivalence of the United States’ relation to blackness. “Are we your blessing or your bane?” Glover seems to ask. It’s an urgent and worthwhile question.
The bulk of Childish Gambino’s work trafficks in iconoclasm, distinction from the rest of the rap pack; hearing him adopt such Atlantan sensibilities, backed mostly by Atlanta rappers, almost feels like revisionism. He is fromAtlanta, but that connection has only recently migrated into his work and has often felt transactional, a trend that continues here. It’s hard not to wonder what he gains from this reclaiming of his hometown. “This Is America” works without such self-examination, but Glover’s stake in this conversation is noticeably absent. Glover powerfully invokes America’s testy relationship with blackness, but what about his own?