Throughout his decorated career, Donald Glover’s work has become synonymous with blurring the lines between different creative mediums. From writing and starring in the music-affiliated AtlantaFX and Guava Island, to pairing a script to his sophomore album, Because The Internet- he has constantly merged sonic and visual aesthetics he is inspired by, and presented it to his fans as a new creation. Whilst dipping his toes in many pools and simultaneously wearing twice as many hats, a constant for ‘Bino has been storytelling through his music videos. The overall attention to detail and hidden commentary that appears in his videos time and time again, speaks volumes of the kind of artist he perceives himself to be.
Heartbeat (Power Dynamics)
The lack of dialogue in music videos can be viewed as a blessing or a curse, depending on the concept. Whilst many directors make use of lyrics to guide the narrative and others give viewers a completely new one, Gambino takes the best of both worlds and fuses them in Heartbeat. He creates a storyline told through body language, that loosely ties into the lyrics, with notable bars like,
“So I'm chilling with my girlfriend/But she not my real girlfriend/She got a key to my place but/She's not my real girlfriend”
The entire video comments on the shift of power dynamics within a romantic relationship, the ambiguity of it all and the fact that no one really knows what’s going on. The car is a tangible metaphor for the couple’s connection, where whoever is in the ‘driver’s seat’ has the upper hand. It starts off with Childish in the front seat, where the love interest willingly sits in the back. He is the driving force behind their situation, until she gets out of the car, momentarily ending their relationship.
This is the first power shift that we see, leading to a shot where they are both in the back seat making out, symbolising the loss of control from both sides ‘entangled’ in passion. The woman then takes control of the vehicle and their fling, leaving Gambino disheartened in the back by himself. The video comes full circle as she drives to a halt and leaves the car with a smile on her face, leaving CG to get back in the driver’s seat and ultimately look for another relationship.
Bonfire (Racial Tensions)
There is an incredible juxtaposition between the lyrics and visual content for Bonfire. As one of the first singles released from his debut album, Camp, the writer-turned-artist wanted to demonstrate his worldplay without forgetting his origins, which is why the bars on this track are deeply rooted in comedy. “You're my favorite rapper, now"/ Yeah, dude, I better be/
Or you can fuckin' kiss my ass, Human Centipede”. The video itself couldn’t be further from funny. The visual acted as social commentary on racial tensions in America, starting with CG waking up injured from a failed hanging. The backdrop is both eerie and dark which plays into his scared expressions whilst he looks for help. He stumbles on a camping trip where stories are being told around a bonfire by a black campleader. We can assume the ‘scary’ stories he is telling are not fiction, but real horrors that encapsulate the black experience. To the white campers, that signify white America, they are just as fictional as campfire tales. In spotting the group, ‘Bino also sees a man with a noose and knife-in-hand approaching the campers. He chases after him to protect the group but ends up reaching them first. Gambino tries to warn them of the impending threat but they can’t hear his cries, in a similar way to how plight within African-American communities has been silenced and overlooked countless times. The video direction touches on how the black existence, and the problems that are associated, are trivialised and put at a comfortable distance in the US. Even when the matters at hand get uncomfortably close, like when the man finally approaches the campers- it produces no real threat and is glazed over. When the campers realised that they were being pranked and their lives weren’t in danger, they resumed their activities whilst Gambino's situation became a constant and looped back to the beginning, putting him in a cycle of trauma and censorship. A fitting video for the events we’re currently experiencing.
I. The Worst Guys (Infection)
The majority of the video is unassuming. Accompanied by the Acid Rap Chance The Rapper (trust me, it matters) and other friends, ‘Bino spends a day at the beach smoking, surfing and partying around a firepit at sunset in what looks like a black Hollister promotional video. Based on fan theory the significance of the visual is that it is almost too ordinary for his crazy concepts, alluding to a ‘calm before the storm’ moment. And they were on the money. If anything is taken away from the music video it’s the quick frames that flash on the screen around 1:47, where you see a gash or a bite on CG’s right leg, which isn’t seen again throughout the music video. We will reference this as the point of infection.
III. Telegraph Ave (Mutation)
The tracklist on Because The Internet is denoted with roman numerals, in a similar way that acts and scenes in a script are formatted. The music videos made from this album work in a similar fashion, depicting different stages of the developing tale. Telegraph Ave starts off by recounting a love story between Donald Glover and Jhene Aiko; the couple is vacationing. The song is fitting as far as the video is concerned- complementing the ebb and flow of how we view romantic relationships but ironically, the locals don’t see them the way the viewers do as they are particularly hostile towards ‘Bino throughout. Their suspicions of CG periodically break up the on-screen chemistry the pairing have, moving the focus away from a caring sentiment of the music video to an inquisitive one. When Childish goes swimming around 2:30, the camera angles are reminiscent of the underwater shots from The Worst Guys but this time, he looks more at home in the water rather than being in a foreign element. Instead of surfing above the water, like in the previous ‘scene’, he becomes one with it. A short clip void of music briefly shows him as a sea creature, completely juxtaposing Jhene who is an onlooker on dry land. In another attempt to mirror The Worst Guys, the couple sit around a bonfire at night, as if it were a ritual. The video ends abruptly with CG being hit by a car driven by the hostile locals, revealing a mutated body made from tentacles and confirming their suspicions all along.
IV. Sweatpants (Transition)
Although Sweatpants is a continuation of the saga, it differs greatly from the first two scenes. After his ‘mutation’ phase in Telegraph Ave, where we can assume that he killed his lover along with the locals, Gambino’s humanly perception becomes distorted. We can see a difference in his mannerisms immediately, with his initial reaction to the water the waitress brought over being more inquisitive than you would expect (but not surprising given his association with the sea). The video then begins to loop. In the first sequence, CG doesn’t interact with anyone, he merely observes everything around him like an outsider. It’s not until he physically sees himself in the people around him that he starts to take notice of them.
The ‘Gambinofication’ of those in the diner signifies the same change in Childish, but with his new and peculiar outlook on life, the understanding of time is different. In fact, the jump in space and time explores the idea of time being a social construct and how he no longer adheres to both concepts in a linear way. Whilst trying to interpret time, like the human version of himself would, he is filling the gaps in his limited knowledge with very familiar faces. The video shows Glover coming to terms with both internal and external changes in a particularly disturbing way. The idea is further solidified by Urn making an appearance at the end of the song. Although hailing from the same album, the interlude is preceded by Roman numeral III, but from a different act, appearing much later in the project than the other tracks and videos being discussed.
V. 3005 (Domination)
3005 has always stood out as the saddest song on the album. “I’ll be right by your side, till 3005” is a cute phrase that has sentimental value but holds no weight in the literal sense. When looked at realistically, it’s an empty promise that cannot be upheld- touching on how fickle the human experience can be and the emotions that come along for the ride. Glover navigates through this idea by syncing the metaphorical and literal spaces throughout the video. Sweatpants saw a disregard for the linear view of time (as well as space) and in 3005, the interpretation is cyclical in every sense of the word.
The scene shows CG on a ferris wheel at a fairground monotonously rotating for the entire 4 minutes of the song. Next to him, sits a fair-prize teddy that represents human life. As the song progresses and the wheel turns, the wear and tear becomes visible on the bear, whilst Childish Gambino remains unscathed. The trees and city skyline gradually burn in the background, linking those who were infected during the ‘transition’ to the scene at hand, where they are taking over and running amok. By the end, the teddy sits on the ride, ripped to shreds and covered in stains but Bino is nowhere to be seen. Although he functions within the human world, he can’t love within it or even walk among it anymore and so, he leaves.
Sober (Imagination vs. Reality)
Sober can be described perfectly by how people see themselves vs. how the person they actually are. Gambino’s obsession with time continues but in this video, he adds the element of intoxication to create a ‘moment’ of magic. Glover always pays attention to detail in his videos, and although he and the girl waiting for her food seem like the main characters, the show is stolen by the little clock on the wall. The clock reads ‘9:30’ when the video first fades in. Gambino is looking borderline ill, awkward and extremely high but despite this, he approaches the beautiful girl minding her own business. After trying to woo her with a creepy smile, she moves. Her movement is significant because the camera angle changes and so does CG’s outlook on the situation. That exact moment is when the transition from ‘who he is’ to ‘who he wants to be’ happens.
His movements and dancing instantly become smoother. His actions and smirk become appealing to the girl rather than repulsing her. On top of all of this, the impossible takes place, both overtly and discreetly. For example, Gambino cracks open an egg with a note inside, reading “I’m high” but most people don’t realise how it abruptly snows then disappears by the end shot. In fact, everything that made him attractive to the girl disappears in the end, in a Cinderella-esque moment. As soon as she leaves, his demeanor reverts back to the awkward man seen at the very beginning and most importantly, the time is still 9:30. It raises the question of self-image to the point where we wonder whether the girl was ever present in the diner at all.
The growing infatuation with how people interact with time is one that doesn’t seem to stray too far from his creative pursuits with his latest project, 3.15.20, being linked to significant time stamps rather than the tracks being traditionally titled. Keeping time as a running theme throughout his work is more than apt as he comments on the evolution of his sound but manifests it physically into his visuals. Although we don’t know what is coming next from the multifaceted rapper, we have an inkling about the constructs he may include and incorporate.
To see The Floor’s analysis of Childish Gambino’s This is America, click here.