Childish Gambino’s chart-topper is unprecedented, and its future on the radio is uncertain.
On the night of Jan. 8, 2017, the actor-writer-director-rapper-singer–stand-up Donald Glover attended the Golden Globes in Beverly Hills, California. To that date, the artist formerly known as Troy Barnes had, in a roughly decadelong career, won his share of accolades. But in terms of actual hardware, the prizes were largely second-tier: some TV Guide and Gold Derby TV Awards, a handful of more prestigious Writers Guild of America awards he’d taken as part of 30 Rock’s large writing ensemble. So when Glover and his brainchild Atlanta were called to the Globes stage, winner of best comedy series and best actor in a comedy series, Glover looked happily flabbergasted: “This is incredible! We were not … yo!” he said, laughing in disbelief before regaining his poise.
In his Globes acceptance speech for Best Series, Musical or Comedy, Glover digressed midspeech to unwittingly hint at some news Billboard magazine would make official the very next day: Atlanta rappers Migos’ viral hit “Bad and Boujee” was about to be the No. 1 song in the country. “I really wanna thank the Migos—not for being in the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ Like, that’s the best song, ever, so … um, yeah.”
This was just 16 months ago. Prior to that early January night, as critically praised as Atlantahad been, you would have been laughed out of the room for calling Glover imperial or guessing he might one day have a Billboard chart-topper of his own. Eight months after the Globes, he racked up his first Emmy wins, for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. During that same year, he filmed a performance as Lando Calrissian, a role made famous by Billy Dee Williams nearly 40 years ago, in the about-to-be-released Star Warssidebar Solo. Four months after his Emmy wins, he took his first Grammy. Actually, the shocker in Grammy-land wasn’t the win his Funkadelic-lite soul jam “Redbone,” under nom de rapChildish Gambino, took in the fairly small, less-competitive category of Best Traditional R&B Performance. It was that the Gambino album “Awaken, My Love!” made the final five for Album of the Year—in a way, that nomination was the bigger win. Fewer than four months after that, Glover, as Gambino, has—most improbably of all—followed Migos into the Hot 100’s No. 1 slot, debuting on top. And it’s not like he made it easy on himself. Glover has rung the bell with an artwork that’s more video soundtrack and cri de cœur than song, the sort of statement that almost never tops the charts.
That statement is, of course, “This Is America,” the most minutely, and deservedly, examined four minutes of the month, maybe the year. Yes, the video—Glover’s satire of the minstrel tradition and the stalemated gun debate, along with about a dozen other things—is daring, provocative, traumatizing, cynical, discomfiting, ultraviolent, implicating, depressingly meme-worthy, and, to many, a work of genius. But what happens when “This Is America” tops the Billboard charts? Are we ready for “This Is America” to be just a song?
Most of the analysis of “This Is America” gushed forth in its first week. After Glover debuted the song on May 5—in two forums, the actual video on YouTube, and a near-simultaneous live performance by Glover on Saturday Night Live in the wee hours of May 6—commentators took to their keyboards to assess what it all meant. The normal arc on a woke-and-proud cultural event like this is about a week of close reading and fetishization, followed by us all moving to the next thing, forgetting it for the balance of the year, and only revisiting it in December. I can picture all of us in the Slate Music Club (or maybe the TV Club?) reminiscing, a few days around Christmas 2018, “Oh yeah, that was wild … remember when that happened?!”
Instead, we must now wrap our minds around what happens to Glover’s magnum opus when it is flattened into a hit pop record. This is normally the moment when I, as the writer of this No. 1 hits series, reach back in chart history for precedents that explain how a hit like this is made. I’ll just cop to it now: I got nothin’. While there are certainly precedents for elements of what Glover has achieved here, we are in, no pun intended, uncharted waters.
To begin to map out this new territory, we can dissect the data. No shock, a big reason “This Is America” hit No. 1 last week was that video. In its first week, the “This Is America” clip was watched about 85 million times on YouTube. According to Billboard, of the millions of streams (audio and video) that pushed the song to No. 1, views of the “America” video made up more than two-thirds. And the overwhelming bulk of those streams were for the one video, the Gambino original—not a pile of homemade viral videos, which in 2013 generated the record that still holds when Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” was streamed on YouTube more than 103 million times in seven days.
Since “Harlem Shake,” such video-first pushes to No. 1 have become unusual. While total YouTube music streams, for all music, edge out total streams at places like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, most weeks the concentrated streaming numbers for new, hit music are at the audio-only sites—Spotify is what makes a hit nowadays, not YouTube. Streaming is one of the three legs that support the Hot 100 stool, the other two being sales and airplay. Depending on how you view a partially full glass, “America” is either under- or overperforming in those other two metrics. Billboard reports it was the top-selling song in America in its first week, but it did so with the solid, unspectacular total of about 78,000 $1 downloads. That is about twice what the No. 2 download sold that week, but it’s at least 10,000 to tens of thousands less than Drake’s last two chart-toppers, “God’s Plan” and “Nice for What,” sold in their peak weeks, and about half what Ed Sheeran’s Beyoncé duet “Perfect” was ringing up over the holidays. As for airplay, “America” doesn’t even appear on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart at all, notable for a Hot 100 topper. However, the fact that it has any airplay at all is impressive. Billboard reports that “This Is America” in its first week amassed a terrestrial radio audience of nearly 10 million, mostly on R&B and hip-hop stations. It enters the Rap Airplay chart at No. 20 and R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay at No. 30. In its second week, Billboard reports that “America” not only holds at No. 1, it actually grew in two out of three metrics—streams (up 7 percent) and airplay (up 77 percent)—practically unheard of for a track that debuts on top.
In other words, a sizable group of Americans have been doing what I’ve been doing for the past week or so: listening to “This Is America,” on repeat, sans video. For a few million of us, this was how we first consumed “This Is America” three Saturdays ago—when Glover hosted Saturday Night Live and served as his own musical guest as Gambino. He performed the song near the end of the show, on a starkly lit, largely unadorned stage, accompanied only by a troupe of the Catholic School–uniformed dancers now famous from the video. They were enacting a small subset of the clip’s dizzying array of activity, but the distractions from the music were far, far fewer on the SNL stage than they were in the video.
When you focus on “This Is America” as music, you gradually adjust to what initially makes it so jarring, particularly the lurch from the sweet, acoustic Afrobeat intro to the droning, brooding chorus. It takes a while for your brain to stop filling in the horrifying gunshot that, in the video, introduces the first chorus. Still, it doesn’t take more than a few plays to appreciate how memorable and oddly, unsettlingly catchy the song is. You start looking forward to other infectious moments in the song: the “Get your money, black man” chant or the ode to trap houses and Benjamins, “Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands (hunnid bands)/ Contraband, contraband, contraband (contraband).”
My reduction of the song to a collection of hooks might be a diminution, but this is where “This Is America” is headed, assuming that these first two weeks of radio airplay are more than just initial curiosity. The song’s complexities and subtleties, from the knowing irony in Young Thug’s sweet “We just wanna party” bridge to the triple meaning of “whippin’ ” in the chorus’s “Look what I’m whippin’ now,” will all take a back seat to the groove. And that’s regardless of whether the song spends one week at No. 1 or a Drake-like three months. As I’ve noted before, music charts are feedback loops: They tell the industry what’s popular so they can make it more popular. Perhaps the radio programmer who found “America” off-putting at first will now start rotating it—in an era where a song as skeletal as “Panda” or as meandering as “God’s Plan” can top the pop chart, the bar for “radio-friendly” has shifted.
The airwaves have a tendency to turn songs into wallpaper, multiplying their impact and diminishing their power. Should “This Is America” become sonic decor? Can it? Given that one common interpretation of the video is that it’s about Americans’ willingness to commodify and distract ourselves from black suffering, that prospect is either depressing, exactly what was intended, or both.
The best analog to the song’s stew of tragedy-inspired wokeness, unapologetic blackness, and radio-ready catchiness, especially when you take into account the high-profile television debut, is Beyoncé’s “Formation,” but even then the parallel doesn’t quite line up. As huge as that song’s Super Bowl showcase was, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s decision to exclusively limit “Formation” to Tidal, and not put it on sale at download stores until late April, meant its chart impact was spread out. When it finally debuted on the Hot 100 in early May at a modest No. 10, it had been garnering airplay for months, and its streams were strong but no longer as buzzy as they were right after the big game.
“America” also belies the premise of my piece on Meghan Trainor’s 2014 No. 1 smash “All About That Bass,” in which I argued that that vague, protest-ish song is about as topical as Americans want their chart-toppers to be. About the best equivalent, on that front, is Stevie Wonder’s 1974 No. 1 hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” which masked the pointedness of its anti-Nixon lyrics in strutting funk. The more pointed the song, the lower it peaks on the charts, generally. Contrary to boomers’ memories of the ’60s, the openly anti-war songs were not chart-toppers (and in 1966, the pro-war song was). So unless you regard “Eve of Destruction” or “In the Year 2525” as forthright anti-war songs rather than collections of broadly applicable platitudes, “This Is America” might be the most lyrically daring Hot 100 No. 1 in history.
That is, if you can make out what exactly Glover means by it. In his pointed dissent against the purported genius of “This Is America,” Spin’s Israel Daramola accuses Glover of not even fully comprehending what his own video and song mean. Personally, I am closer to feeling “America” is some kind of genius, given how much planning it took and Glover’s innate sense of his cultural currency. What he is doing is both genuine and calculating. Most artists would be content to—in a single month—host Saturday Night Live (acting in every sketch in addition to performing as the musical guest), complete the second season of an Emmy-winning TV show, and appear on movie screens as the younger incarnation of one of the most beloved black characters of all time. They wouldn’t think, “You know what I could do with this Imperial Moment? Take that hobby music career of mine, leverage it into a song and video in which I flip off the entire country, and top the pop charts in the process. Sure, that’ll work.” He’s not a full-on, Prince-level prodigy in any one thing he does—there’s a reason it took him a full decade to get here—but Glover has built a genius career in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. I don’t think there was a shred of irony in the opening line of his SNLmonologue, “I’m an actor, a writer, and a singer—some people like to call me a ‘triple threat,’ but I kinda like to call myself just a threat.”
Now that “This Is America” is enshrined in the Billboard history books, we don’t have the option of forgetting it—memories of legendary chart feats are long. About 15 months ago, just weeks into the Trump administration, fellow Slate pop critic Jack Hamilton and I mused in writing about what it would take for America to collectively raise a middle finger at the new president with a Billboard-topping No. 1 song. Jack figured it would take a hip-hop record and lodged his vote for a track that was already nearly a year old, rapper YG’s “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” featuring Nipsey Hussle. I helped Jack crunch the numbers, jiggling beads on the abacus to guesstimate how many millions of streams and thousands in sales “FDT” would have to shift in a week to overcome the foulmouthed song’s likely lack of radio airplay. Jack and I invoked prior song-based, chart-topping protests in the United Kingdom, whose people made the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” a No. 2 (but really No. 1) hit in 1977 and Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” a stunt No. 1 in 2009. Old Blighty pulled off its chart-based howls of protest—surely America was agitated enough after Trump’s election to do the same? The Slate team even tried to get the viral snowball rolling by producing “Bad and Boujee”–like mashup videos, placing snippets of “FDT” in lolz-worthy cartoon settings. Obviously, none of this actually worked. Fomenting a viral hit is, it turns out, nearly impossible to do in a premeditated fashion (unless you’re, I dunno, Drake). For a one-fingered salute to Trump’s America to top the chart, it would have to be a new song, it would have to be intrinsically viral, it would have to be so open to interpretation that even Fox News viewers would want to click … and it wouldn’t hurt if the artist were—pardon the expression—bulletproof. We couldn’t do it, but Childish Gambino just defied all the lessons of history and pulled it off.