The Week In Pop

At Least We Can Count On Childish Gambino For Great Videos

Remember the early stage of the Drake/Meek Mill beef? If not, let me refresh your memory.

The year was 2015. Drake and Meek had recorded a couple songs together, including the hit “Amen” and one called “R.I.C.O.” for Meek’s then-current album, Dreams Worth More Than Money. One night a few weeks after the album’s release, Meek logged onto Twitter and called out Drake for not writing his own raps. Apparently he’d found out that an obscure rapper named Quentin Miller had written or heavily contributed to Drake’s “R.I.C.O.” verse, and he couldn’t stand to keep it to himself any longer. Miller’s name was right there in the credits, but for a battle-born hip-hop purist like Meek Mill, letting someone else put words in your mouth was an unforgivable offense.

This set off a feud that would ultimately derail Meek’s career, but Drake’s initial response to Meek’s allegations was not exactly a knockout blow. Before the triumphant shit-talk celebration “Back To Back” and the victory lap that was OVO Fest, he released a tepid, not particularly convincing diss track called “Charged Up” that did very little to change the narrative. Meek’s tweeted response: “I can tell he wrote that 1 tho……”

I thought about this last week when Donald Glover released a new pair of summer-themed Childish Gambino tracks. Glover’s music career thus far has been a torturous dance of promise and frustration. From Community to Solo, the guy has been a consistently great comic actor, exhibiting broad range and a surplus of charisma. With the undefinable and unpredictable Atlanta, one of the best shows on television if not the best, he established himself as a genuine creative visionary. His musical output, though, has been inconsistent, with moments of brilliance interspersed by cloying punchline-rap and scattershot genre exercises.

So when the latest of those genre exercises — 2016’s Grammy-nominated “Awaken, My Love!” — yielded Childish Gambino’s first truly great song, it was reason to believe the project was finally on the right track. That song, “Redbone,” was the biggest hit of Glover’s music career to date, and deservedly so. Much of the album did for Funkadelic what Interpol did for Joy Division, attempting to ride a wave by pillaging a retro sound. It wasn’t terrible, just inessential. “Redbone” pushed the same buttons, but it was a revelation: warm, luxuriant, triumphal, fully worthy of the sometimes-unearned confidence Glover brings to his every endeavor. Its “Stay woke!” rallying cry doubled as a reminder to pay attention to whatever came next.

What came next was spectacular. “This Is America” immediately dwarfed “Redbone” in terms of cultural exposure, rocketing straight to #1 on the strength of its jarring, provocative music video. Again, this was deserved. Glover and his preferred director Hiro Murai had concocted a series of images so arresting people couldn’t look away and soundtracked them with a fascinating blast of experimental rap like Kendrick Lamar on a Death Grips bender. So what if the video significantly enhanced the quality of the song? That’s what music videos are supposed to do. There were valid critiques to be made about Glover’s cynical use of violence against black people and a message so slippery some wondered if it was provocation for provocation’s sake. It was at bare minimum a striking work of art that seized America’s attention like few music videos in recent memory, a force so magnetic it demanded to be reckoned with.

Then came the allegations last month that Glover had ripped off “This Is America” from “American Pharaoh,” a relatively obscure 2016 track by New Jersey renaissance man Jase Harley. After rap fans on Reddit noticed the similarity, the social media buzz about the supposed plagiarism became so loud that Glover’s manager felt the need to log online and fire off an angry response built around the claim, “this song is 3 yrs old, and we have pro tools files to prove it.” That may well be true, and it’s not like “American Pharaoh” and “This Is America” are identical. But until those Pro Tools files turn up, there will always be some doubt as to the origin of Gambino’s biggest hit, which is a real shame because it seemed like such a step in the right direction.

As for “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer”? As Meek once wrote, I can tell he wrote those ones. More specifically, Glover co-produced the two-track Summer Pack with Ludwig Goransson, the collaborator who has become as closely aligned with Glover’s musical vision as Murai is on the visual axis. Glover and Goransson have leapt across genre lines several times this decade to chase new sounds, their muse usually in step with the trends of the moment. I don’t fault them for shifting the shape of Childish Gambino — most successful musicians on Gambino’s level adapt with the times to maintain their place in culture — but the results often feel forced or, in the case of the new summer songs, blithely uninspired.

“Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer” are as generic as “This Is America” was unique. The two Caribbean-inflected tracks are inferior sequels to his 2014 Kauai EP, the lite-funk excursion that gave us the eye-popping Glover/Murai convergence “Sober.” They sound like Maroon 5 trying to make Toro Y Moi songs. The former rides steel drums and synthesizers, dazed yet propulsive in its pursuit of the titular magic; it never quite gets there. The latter is more of a sweltering Sade homage, all vibes and no substance. The news that both tracks will be included on Glover’s upcoming album — supposedly his last one as Childish Gambino — significantly tempers whatever anticipation “Redbone” and “This Is America” generated.

I am, however, curious to see whether Glover and Murai have another phenomenal music video in the works for one of these songs. In hindsight, the “Sober” video and its Murai-helmed predecessors “Telegraph Ave,” “3005,” and “Sweatpants” were even brighter beacons of this project’s promise than “Redbone.” Each of them took songs that ranged from OK to mediocre and elevated them by backgrounding them in some surreal drama: a tropical romance turned monster movie, a bizarre drunken seduction, a ferris wheel ride where more is going on than initially meets the eye. And they’re all richly conceived, from their gorgeous color palettes to their unmistakable perspective. Few musicians and music video directors can claim a more fruitful partnership.

Even before Glover started working with Murai, he was generating thought-provoking videos for otherwise awful songs. Consider “Bonfire,” from 2011’s Camp, in which Glover plays the ghost of a young black man lynched by the other teens at a white summer camp. That video turned abrasive hashtag-rap garbage into a profound update on Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” — it just happened to be attached to a song with lyrics such as “Eatin’ Oreos like these white girls that blow me” and “My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es” and “‘You’re my favorite rapper, now’ / Yeah, dude, I better be/ Or you can fuckin’ kiss my ass / Human Centipede.”

His music has gotten a lot better since then, but even “This Is America” was still a mere appetizer for the video’s plentiful main course. With Glover saying he’ll retire the Childish Gambino pseudonym after this next album, at this point it’s likely the project will never mature beyond an occasionally great, mostly mundane musical enterprise. It’s already proven its worth, though, as a platform for remarkable videos. Since you can’t make a music video without first recording some music, wading through a stream of extremely average songs is an occupational hazard I can live with as more of a Donald Glover fan than a Childish Gambino fan. But I do hope he comes through with more videos soon because if this music is supposed to stand on its own merits, I’ll kindly opt to stay sleeping.

CREDIT: C Brandon/Redferns

CHART WATCH

Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake, Drake.

More Drake chart news this week! Dude is probably still drinking every night because he drinks to his accomplishments, just like in 2011. This week the most notable of those accomplishments is his song “In My Feelings” replacing his other song “Nice For What” as the #1 single in the country. That puts Drake at six career #1 hits, which, as Billboard informs us, pushes him past Diddy, Eminem, and Ludacris for most all-time among rappers. Factoring in “God’s Plan,” it’s the third #1 song off Scorpion — the first album to generate three #1 hits since Justin Bieber’s Purpose. Because Bieber’s hits were spread across two years, Drake is also the first artist to score three #1 singles in the same year since Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry in 2010 and the first male artist to do it since Confessions-era Usher logged four #1s in 2004.

At #2 is Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s former chart-topper “I Like It,” followed by another Cardi-featuring track, Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” at a new #3 peak. So, huge week for Cardi as well, appearing on two of the three biggest songs in the nation and all! “Nice For What” slides to #4, while Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” reaches a new high point at #5, and then “God’s Plan” lingering at #6. The rest of the top 10: Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” at #7, Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry” at #8, Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho” at #9, and XXXTentacion’s “SAD!” at #10.

Guess who rules the Billboard 200 albums chart for a second week? DRAKE! Scorpion tallied (or should we say tail-ied) 335,000 album equivalent units — but only 29,000 in actual sales — to remain at #1. A full 288,000 of those units derive from streaming, which is nuts. After Post Malone at #2 comes Future’s Beast Mode 2, debuting at #3 with 57,000 units — the largest figure and best chart placement ever for a streaming-only release. What else? XXXTentacion at #4, Cardi B at #5, Juice WRLD at #6, The Greatest Showman at #7, the Carters at #8. Meek Mill’s Legends Of The Summer EP enters at #9 with 26,000 units/6,000 sales, and Lil Baby’s album rounds out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande – “God Is A Woman”
One of the best possible outcomes of “Here is my bleeding heart, and here is a trap beat behind it.”

Zedd & Elley Duhé – “Happy Now”
I like how Zedd has completely dispensed with the notion that he’s an EDM producer. Though I bet he’s still picking up high-paying DJ gigs, the only vestige of his “Clarity” heritage on “Happy Now” is those robotic backing vocals also heard on “The Middle.” The results here aren’t nearly as euphoric, due partially to a lesser song and partially to the absence of Maren Morris. This will probably still be huge on top 40 radio anyway.

Imagine Dragons – “Natural”
Just when I finally got “Whatever It Takes” out of my head, here comes Dan Reynolds with more high-tech clenched-sphincter Broadway rock. When it comes to writing genuinely catchy songs that annoy the fuck out of me, this guy truly is a natural.

Benny Blanco – “Eastside” (Feat. Halsey & Khalid)
Khalid cuts waaaaay too many songs, and Halsey’s track record is shaky, but I am a fan of them both. So I am happy to report that this is an extremely acceptable upbeat/melancholy pop track. It’s not going to be another “Closer,” but it gives me similarly pleasing instant-nostalgia vibe. However, “Westside” still beats “Eastside” in my book.

DRAM – “WWYD?”
What a joy and a treasure this man is.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Cardi B leads this year’s MTV VMA nominations with 10. Beyoncé and Jay-Z scored 8. [Variety]
  • Years & Years’ Olly Alexander may have accidentally let slip that Dua Lipa is singing the next Bond theme. [NME]
  • In other Dula Peep news, she shared a French version of “IDGAF.” [YouTube]
  • Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner are the subject of a new GQ cover story. [GQ]
  • GQ also made a cute “23 Questions” video starring Travis & Kylie. [YouTube]
  • Cher is releasing an ABBA covers album following her appearance in the Mamma Mia! sequel. [The Guardian]
  • Khalid and Noah Cyrus are the new faces of Hollister’s back-to-school campaign. [Billboard]
  • Zayn released a cover of Jhené Aiko’s “Bed Peace.” [YouTube]
  • Lady Gaga served chicken at her dad’s new restaurant in NYC’s Grand Central Station. [Twitter]
  • Flush with This Is Us success, Mandy Moore is getting back to music. [Instagram]
  • G-Eazy released a video for his song “Power” with Nef The Pharaoh and P-Lo. [YouTube]
  • DJ Snake partied with the French men’s national soccer team after their World Cup win. [Billboard]
  • Niall Horan and Hailee Steinfeld are dating. [Us]
  • Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth have reportedly broken up again. [Marie Clare]
  • Britney Spears is launching a gender-neutral fragrance called Prereogative. [Twitter]
  • Spears also suffered a wardrobe malfunction during a show in Maryland. [Canoe]
  • Drake reportedly hung out with Kiki over the weekend. [Complex]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME