Childish Gambino on Chance the Rapper’s “Favorite Song”
Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap has been one of my favorite records this year. It’s a buoyant, exuberant tape full of tight wordplay, fantastic pseudo-soul hooks, and memorable production. At the end of the year, I definitely expect it to be in the running for not only my favorite mixtape of the year, but also to contend for my favorite long-form release, period. Basically, what I’m saying is that if you haven’t downloaded it yet, you should really hurry up and get to it.
Although, if you’re feeling any trepidation, I can relate. Despite all of the hype, the good reviews, and the early accolades, I was a little hesitant to listen to it. The reason that I was a bit uneager to listen to the tape is because its eighth track had the words “(feat. Childish Gambino)” after its title (that track, obviously, is the one above).
You see, I generally like Donald Glover. Community is one of my favorite television programs,1 and he is a big part of that. As a comedic actor, he has that inherent ability to make practically any sentence funny purely by how he delivers it, and he’s proven himself as a surprisingly solid dramatic actor in Community's more serious moments. He also contributed as a writer to some of 30 Rock's best seasons, and helped give us the immortal “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah.” Oh yeah, I’ve also seen him do stand up, and he is also funny when he is doing that. Funny. Funny. Funny. If you’re not catching my drift, basically, the dude’s really funny, and I enjoy most of the work he’s done over the years.
That all being said, I fucking hate him as a rapper.
I’ve listened to the majority of the music he’s put out under the name Childish Gambino, and I honestly kind of wish I hadn’t because I didn’t enjoy a bit of it. His strange insistence that every line contain a sub-Ludacris-quality punchline, and his adherence to uninspired, turgid production are baffling to me. But what I find peculiarly irksome is the fact that he can’t seem to deliver a verse without positioning himself as an outsider that wants to be a part of hip hop but can’t be because he’s all about the gangstas and bling bling and the dungarees and what not. The fact is that the current rap climate is as far from gangsta rap as it could be.2 It’s not 1994 anymore, man. Dudes have been wearing tight jeans and rapping over indie rock samples for nearly a decade now. It’s a position that makes me question how much hip hop he actually listens to, because it sounds exactly like something a person who doesn’t listen to any rap would say. I mean, is it any surprise that Camp is the favorite rap album of all my friends that don’t listen to rap?3
I know everything I’ve said so far is extremely negative, but I actually want to praise Glover’s work on the track above. He and Chance are clearly kindred spirits, as they share a goofy, manic energy and love to shift tempos and delivery in their verses. And based upon this track, it seems like some of Chance’s good judgement has rubbed off on Glover. He’s no longer straining his delivery to force his vocals down your throat, and he’s toned down the incessant puns that marred his previous verses. He’s clearly backed off of some of his bad habits and has focused on highlighting his strengths (the aforementioned tempo changes, and the versatile delivery of his non-musical comedic work). It’s a real step in the right direction for him as an artist.
As I mentioned, before I listened to Acid Rap, I was sort of dreading this track. But, after my first listen through, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t even noticed which verse he’d delivered. In fact, when I went back and checked the credits I found that I’d mistaken his verse for the work of some unknown member of Chance’s crew. I’d listened to his verse and not been annoyed by it.
While that might be a case of damning with faint praise,4 I’d still call it a big step forward for him.
1. Or should I say, it was, and now maybe it will be again? The whole Harmon out / Harmon in thing has really confused everyone’s feelings about the show, right?
2. See Kanye West, Drake, 2 Chainz, all of Odd Future, Lil B, Danny Brown, Angel Haze, Big Sean, all of Black Hippy, Azealea Banks, Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and basically every other notable / semi-notable rapper working today.
3. I really have to give The Evil Empire’s resident hitman Ian Cohen credit for absolutely nailing this idea in his review of that album. He writes “If you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I’m guessing it’ll be Camp.” I’ve been saying things to that effect since I first heard his I Am Just A Rapper tapes, but Cohen stated it perfectly.
4. Yeah, I’m definitely damning him with faint praise.
Somehow, despite how often I’ve listened to James Blake’s self-titled full length this year, it was only a few days ago that I learned that “The Wilhelm Scream,” one of the album’s best tracks, is basically a cover of the song “Where To Turn" by James Litherland, Blake father.1 The reason that I am so taken aback by this news is the fact that it completely opens up how I interpret this song.2
The song’s title reference is, of course, the well-know film in-joke, the Wilhelm scream. Sound designer Ben Burtt found an old studio reel titled “Man being eaten by alligator” and incorporated the shrill cry into the film he was working on, Star Wars. He named it for a character in The Charge at Light Feather, whose utterance of the sound first set Burtt on his quest to discover the original recording. Though sound designers had been using the recording for years, Burtt was the one who started using it as a combination of a calling card and an inside joke. Eventually sneaking the sound into films as the sound a character makes when falling became a tradition in the sound design community.3
Surprisingly, though, the Wilhelm scream itself does not appear in “The Wilhelm Scream” at all. Undoubtedly, most people familiar with the term are likely surprised that Blake would name a track after a famous sound, without adding in the sound itself. That seems like a very clear idea and an effective gimmick.4
Instead, Blake’s invocation of the Wilhelm scream is purely conceptual. He uses the sound effect as a metaphor for both the content of the song, and for the song itself.
First, the song’s lyrics relate to the idea of falling, or perhaps more specifically about the feeling of falling. In the original version of the song, Litherland invokes “falling” only at the beginning of the song. Blake, conversely, holds fast to the reference, having it return again and again. In fact, Blake only really uses the first verse of the song, completely eschewing the chorus, or anything after a minute or so in. Thus, the name change was basically necessitated by the fact that Blake completely omits the section from which the original derives its name. While falling was an incidental part of the original, it is central to Blake’s version.
Secondly, in film the Wilhelm scream is basically analogous to a sample in music. It’s a bit of repurposed sound. It’s cutting out a bit of one work and stitching it into another. As Blake is an electronic musician, sampling is a big part of his work. Thus, the Wilhelm scream is naturally akin to the music Blake makes.
Furthermore, this track is essentially a cover of a portion of another song, which is also a sort of recycling of a bit of an earlier work. Covers, samples, and the Wilhelm scream are all connected by this conceptual undercurrent. They are all bits of previous works that artists have taken and formed into a new work altogether. Therefore, Blake’s use of his father’s song in “The Wilhelm Scream” is similar to the way that Ben Burtt used the Wilhelm scream in his work: they both took a bit of old sound and used it as a bit of a new collection of sound.
This fact is absolutely essential to fully understanding this song, so tell your friends, kids.
1. Thank you, Evil Empire. May my mixed feelings about you continue forever more.
2. It also means that my two favorite songs on the album (“The Wilhelm Scream” and “Limit To Your Love”) are both covers.
*SUPERSECRET BIH EDIT: James Litherland was a long time session musician (guitar, vocals) and early member of the seminal but underappreciated British progressive rock band Colosseum, who, along with King Crimson and The Nice, really kicked off the late 60s prog movement.