Posted on May 08 2018
This past weekend Donald Glover aka “Childish Gambino” released the song “This is America” with an accompanying visual. Upon its release it’s already invoked many reactions as it certainly is a vivid critique of pop culture. Dialogue about the experience of being black in America to gun violence and police violence all are subjects that are alluded to. This presentation of art certainly is a heavy one and the specific approach to the music production of this song must not be overlooked. While the uproar certainly has everyone focusing on the satirical genius of the content we felt it would be cool to dissect the production of this song for the producer community. Here are 3 production tricks we noticed in the making of This is America.
Using this term in this way references the musical contrasts that occur throughout the song. From it’s fun and light opening chorus, that contains soulful singing along with Young Thug’s auto tuned voice and African like gang vocals paired with folky guitar accompaniment, to then the addition of minimal trap drum sequencing that weirdly is satisfying. Immediately we see the track building in a way that has contrasting elements seemingly working in harmony. Then suddenly the verse drops and this idea of juxtaposition is pushed even further (the accompanying visual highlights this musical moment twice with two disturbing depictions of gun violence). A droning bass line comes in that takes up so much space sonically immediately creating an ominous feeling. This bass mimics the use of 808s but is fuzzier and more synth like yet it lays back enough to give space for the other production elements. Glover’s delivery goes to that of the style of what some label as “mumble rap” made popular in the Atlanta music scene (and surely there’s no coincidence in Glover doing this as the creator and lead actor in the current hit tv series about the city). This delivery lays the foundation for a trap cadence that gets people moving with every new trap dance we can think of, yet if one steps back and observes there’s some more interesting production contrasts occurring. The use of tribal drums hover through the verses intertwining with common trap drum elements providing a rhythmic texture that is oddly moving and layered just like the lyrical content of the song (one could venture to say that the African drums and the trap drums together in this track could further support and point to the dialogue that this song presents about being black in America). In these verses we also get a barrage of adlib vocals from rappers Young Thug, Quavo, Blocboy JB, Slim Jxmmi and 21 Savage. We’ve seen star filled gang vocal arrangements before possibly, and most notably, from Kanye in songs like “All of the Lights.” All star filled casts can certainly bring attention to a song in the credits, but from a production standpoint the use of many different voices create textures that broaden each moment of a song to be special and memorable.
This is an especially good trick to use in hip hop where beats are usually looped and can become redundant to listeners. Also the use of different vocal performances can add more personality to a record and in this case add to the dialogue. Again the idea of juxtaposition reigns true in this observation of using different vocals together in a song. With this continuous use of contrast we naturally can see another production trick at work…
Contrasting musical elements in a track usually can give way to unsettling moments that feel uncertain and that beckon for resolution. Commonly in music composition resolutions are placed at the end of pieces usually having instruments and vocalists going to the root note or chord in a number of ways. The interesting thing about the arrangement of This is America is that these expected resolutions are continuously interrupted causing tension. As mentioned earlier the choruses are fun and welcoming while the verse change up is dark and ominous. Commonly in music one could anticipate these choruses standing alone as a happy song that resolves on a major triad...yet it doesn’t. As we listen the verse drops in and takes the place of this anticipated resolution. Taking away resolution always gives way to tension and the use of tension as a musical tool in this way can make your production stand out even more. We can see countless times in music production that even just one sound in a track at a specific moment can change everything. For instance in the second half of the verses in Glover’s song a high pitched sustained whistle like synth makes an appearance in the track along with a sample of choir vocals until the return to the chorus. This rising tension that heads back into the chorus mirrors the abrupt switch that occurs from chorus to verse with a quirky flute and choir singing—being the reciprocal elements. In turn this mirroring tension within the track creates musical continuity through the work that binds the various mixtures of musical elements all together even if at face value they don’t seem to work together!
Sequencing and Arrangement
To speak about the continuity of a song means that we must look at how it is arranged. As mentioned before the song is bound together by building contrasting elements to points of tension and release. This arrangement of light hearted sounding chorus to dark ominous verse (and vice versa) is so crucial in the supposed overall theme, yet a most important arrangement piece is seen in the ending. The elements from both the chorus and the verse fuse together and fade out in an unsettling way that leaves us with musical tension that isn’t resolved...just contrasting pieces of the track that coexist and are in dialogue. Man, even just looking at this from a musical standpoint shows some of the commentary on America that Childish Gambino may have been alluding to. An important takeaway here is that how you choose to arrange a track can make or break the delivery of the overall piece of art on display.
This act of using differing production aspects together is a great trick to use when trying to make new interesting textures that remain familiar enough to translate to listeners. The elements can often jump out to different listeners according to what resonates with them creating a layered listening experience. By using musical juxtaposition, tension and the power of arrangement in such an intentional way the music of This is America provides a perfect accompaniment to a tough message that equally displays all of these elements in the lyrics and visual performance too.