This politically-charged anthem finds Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) addressing the police brutality, gun violence and racism that continues to ravage America in 2018. Written and produced by Glover and his longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson, The song was released on May 6, 2018, at the same time that Glover was both host and musical guest on that day's episode of Saturday Night Live.
Throughout the song, there are ad-libs sprinkled in the background from noted black Atlanta artists 21 Savage, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi and Young Thug. The latter returns to supply the song's outro.
Memphis rapper BlocBoy JB also contributes an ad-lib, heard during the video when Gambino and the dancing youngsters do the viral dance move that he popularized with his "Shoot" single. BlocBoy recalled recording his contribution to Billboard
"[Gambino] reached out to my people. He needed my words. [My manager] was like, 'Childish Gambino wants your vocals.' [They] made it seem like an organ [donation]. That beat was so mother---ing hard, and that's all that was. As soon as I heard that mother---er, I was like, 'Man, I ain't going to lie, I want to rap on his motherf---er.' But then I was like, 'I'm just going to do what they say,' because I said I was going to record [ad-libs]. I said I was going to keep it simple. I had other music to get back to anyway."
The song also features a gospel choir, who perform the introduction and the refrain.
The provocative video was directed by Hiro Murai, who previously worked with Glover on his Atlanta show. A statement on gun control, it starts with a shirtless Gambino dancing in a warehouse, and then 53 seconds into the visual, he suddenly shoots an anonymous man in the head. Later on, Gambino mows down the gospel choir while they're singing the refrain. Amidst all the carnage, Gambino continues to perform several viral dance moves with an entourage of young dancers. R&B songbird SZA makes a cameo appearance in the aftermath of the massacre.
The video won the Grammy Award for Best Music Video.
It was the song's engineer Alex Tumay who suggested the idea of getting multiple rappers to deliver ad-libs on the track. Tumay is known for his work with Young Thug and Travis Scott, both of whom are known for littering their rhymes with short phrases such as "Skrrt!" and "It's lit!" Tumay said:
"I just gave the idea to go get a bunch of rappers to do adlibs on the track instead of any traditional features. The song has this all-encompassing energy and I felt like that was the best way to capture it."
Childish Gambino was accused on social media of ripping off New York rapper Jase Harley's 2016 track "American Pharaoh
" for this song. While both tunes do indeed feature dark lyrics about being black in America over a menacing beat, Harley seemed to be relaxed about the alleged musical theft, saying, "I feel extremely humbled to be recognized and labeled as one of, or the original inspiration, for one of the most important pieces of music and visual art of our time."
This was the UK's Guardian newspaper's Song of the Year for 2018. "And music video of the century while we're at it," they added.
The song took a couple of years to complete. "We started out with the beat and then I think within an hour [we had] the main hook," Ludwig Göransson told Entertainment Weekly
. "We made like 80 percent of the song within two hours, and then to finish the rest, it took like two more years."
In addition to Best Music Video, this won the Grammy Awards for Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance. Gambino didn't attend the ceremony, but in accepting Record Of The Year, his engineer Riley Mackin said: "No matter where you're born or what country you're from, you connect with 'This Is America.' It speaks to people - it connects right to your soul. It calls out injustice, it celebrates life, and reunites us all at the same time."
This was the first hip-hop song to win the Grammy Award for either Song Of The Year or Record Of The Year. He was offered a performance spot on the broadcast, but turned it down.