Sunday, August 3, 2014

Childish Gambino -- "That Power" (2011)

This is on a bus back from camp.  I’m thirteen and so are you.  Before I left for camp I imagined it would be me and three or four other dudes I hadn’t met yet, running around all summer, getting into trouble.  It turned out it would be me and just one girl.  That’s you. . . . 

I like you and you like me and I more-than-like you, but I don’t know if you do or don’t more-than-like me.  You’ve never said, so I haven’t been saying anything all summer, content to enjoy the small miracle of a girl choosing to talk to me and choosing to do so again the next day and so on.  

A girl who’s smart and funny and who, if I say something dumb for a laugh, is willing to say something two or three times as dumb to make me laugh, but who also gets weird and wise sometimes in a way I could never be.  A girl who reads books that no one’s assigned to her . . . .

(She sounds like the perfect girlfriend, doesn’t she?  We’ll see about that.)

Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I know that’s a lot more than two or three lines.

As its name indicates, each 2 or 3 lines post usually begins by quoting two or three lines from the featured song.  And you’re the kind of person who believes in playing by the rules, aren’t you?

You ever hear of the famous photographer, Ansel Adams?  Adams once said, “There are no rules for good photographs.  There are only good photographs.”  And the same is true for blogs.

If you’ve never heard of Ansel Adams, maybe you’ve heard of Thomas Edison – you know, the guy who invented the electric light bulb and the phonograph and about a thousand other things.  Edison once said, “Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something!”

Let's dumb things down a little.  You ever see the movie Grease?  There’s a line in that movie that applies here:  “The rules are . . . THERE AIN’T NO RULES!”  Welcome to 2 or 3 lines, boys and girls.

Childish Gambino is the nom de scène of Donald Glover, who got a job as a writer for the NBC series 30 Rock just after he graduated from college in 2006.  Three years later, he was chosen to play the Troy Barnes character on NBC’s Community, which the network recently cancelled.

Donald Glover on "Community"
Glover got his rap name from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator.  Click here if you’d like to have a rap name, too.  (That name generator gave me the rap name “Dynamic Mastermind.”  I can live with that.)

Our featured song, “That Power,” is the last track on Glover’s major-label debut, Camp, which was released in 2011.  

Camp got mixed reviews.  Glover is no one-trick pony – he acts, he writes, he does stand-up comedy, and he raps – and some critics see him as a bit of a dilettante

But there’s no denying that the songs on Camp are clever.  Glover isn’t quite in Kanye West’s league, but he’s a smart guy.

The first half of “That Power” is full of Kanye-esque wordplay and braggadocio.  

For example, consider the following lines:

So it’s 400 blows to these Truffaut n*ggas
Yeah, now that’s the line of the century
N*ggas missed it, too busy, they lyin’ ‘bout penitentiary
Man, you ain’t been there

“The 400 Blows,” which was the debut film of famed director Francois Truffaut, is one of the seminal French “New Wave” movies, but it’s safe to say that most rappers never heard of it.

Thanks in large part to references like this one, Glover’s style is considered too “white” by some black rappers and rap critics.

Glover is certainly not a product of the ghetto.  But neither are a lot of other popular rappers.  

Glover correctly points out that a lot of rappers portray themselves as hardened criminals for the sake of adding to their street “cred,” when in truth they’ve never spent a day in jail.  In other words, they are “Truffaut n*ggas,” or “true faux n*ggas” -- meaning “truly fake n*ggas.” 

I think that the most interesting part of “That Power” is long spoken outro, part of which is quoted at the beginning of this 2 or 3 lines.  (It begins at the three-minute mark of the song.)

The speaker is a teenage boy who has feelings for a girl he met at summer camp, and he decides to tell her about his feelings on the bus ride back to the city.  Since the boy and the girl live in different neighborhoods and go to different schools, he needs to make his move before that bus ride ends.

So he goes for broke:

The sun's gone down and the bus is quiet.  A lot of kids are asleep. . . . And then I'm like, "Can I tell you something?"  And all of a sudden I'm telling you.  And I keep telling you and it all comes out of me and it keeps coming and your face is there and gone and there and gone as we pass underneath the orange lamps that line the sides of the highway.  And there's no expression on it.  And I think just after a point I'm just talking to lengthen the time where we live in a world where you haven't said "yes" or "no" yet.  And regrettably I end up using the word "destiny."  I don't remember in what context.  Doesn't really matter.  Before long I'm out of stuff to say and you smile and say, "okay." I don't know exactly what you mean by it, but it seems vaguely positive . . .

The boy falls asleep, and when he wakes up, the bus has come to a stop and the campers are getting off.  He doesn’t see his girl anywhere, and struggles to get out of the bus so he can find her before she departs in her parents’ car:  

The girls in the back of the bus are shrieking and laughing and taking their sweet time disembarking as I swing my legs out into the aisle to get up off the bus, just as one of them reaches my row. . . . It's Michelle, a girl who got suspended from third grade for a week after throwing rocks at my head.  Adolescence is doing her a ton of favors body-wise.  She stops and looks down at me. And her head is blasted from behind by the dome light, so I can't really see her face, but I can see her smile.  And she says one word: "destiny."  Then her and the girls clogging the aisles behind her all laugh and then she turns and leads them off the bus.  I didn't know you were friends with them.

What lesson does the speaker learn from this betrayal?

I told you something.  It was just for you and you told everybody.  So I learned cut out the middleman, make it all for everybody, always.  Everybody can't turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.  

One way to protect yourself from pain is to keep your real self hidden – play a role rather than being your true self.

Glover has played many different roles in his career as an entertainer.  Is the speaker in “That Power” just one more of his fictional characters?

The closing lines of the outro suggest that Glover isn’t just portraying a fictional 13-year-old boy here.  In fact, he’s not even portraying himself as a 13-year-old.  Instead, he’s baring the soul of the man he is today:

I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man -- more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit.  But that's not true.  The truth is I got on the bus a boy.  And I never got off the bus.  I still haven't.

There's a lot of stuff men don't get about women.  But there's also a lot of stuff women don't get about men.

Here’s “That Power”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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