The autobiographical song is a critical part of hip-hop. Most good MCs are constantly sprinkling autobiographical elements throughout their work—listening to your album I should be to learn about your neighborhood, your background, your favorite stores, your troubles, your friends, your ethos. But I love it when a song is a full-on memoir, like Jay Electronica’s “Exhibit C” or Biggie’s “Juicy”—or Childish Gambino’s “Outside.”
These audio autobiographies often fit within the Black literary tradition (books like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Manchild In the Promised Land, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Assata, Black Boy, and Monster). So many of those classics could be subtitled “My Rise Up From Hell.”
In a hip-hop context these songs often serve to confirm an MC’s hip-hop bona fides—that he’s from the street and has fought through tough circumstances and proven his mettle and his character.
Sure we now have Kanye, Das Racist, Drake, Gambino, and others who are succeeding without talking about being from the ghetto, but hip-hop’s central conversation remains life in the hood and what becomes of those who rhyme their way out of it—i.e., You Can Take The Boy Out Of The Hood But Not The Hood Out Of The Boy. See, Look: He’s Eating KFC While Flying Private.
But slowly, it’s becoming less and less of a prerequisite that MCs be from the hood. Class norms are being challenged in class-ultraconscious hip-hop, and Gambino’s part of that movement. He’s unapologetic about being or sounding “untraditionally” Black and attacks normative Blackness by not accepting that he should accept it. And yet, he is from the hood.
“Outside” is a memoir of Glover’s childhood, and it deals with class conflicts in Glover’s life. Not the stark differences of, say, the rich actor Donald Glover vs the poor child, but much more subtle differentiations...
Written by Touré (@Touré)
“I used to dream every night, now I don't dream at all/Hopin’ that it's cause I'm livin’ everything I want.”
Interesting that he starts his memoir with a flash from the present day before snapping back to the past. We know Glover’s successful, he’s hot in three careers (acting, standup and hip-hop) when many of us would kill to be hot in any one, but right away he’s hinting at his uncertainty over whether he’s made it. He’s “hoping” that it’s because he’s living his dream life. Why doesn’t he know?
In so many other songs he’s bragging about how rich and successful and bad-ass he is, so why does this song start with a note of anxiety about his present?
In so many other songs he’s bragging about how rich and successful and bad-ass he is, so why does this song start with a note of anxiety about his present? For one thing no one gets to Glover’s level of success without constantly wanting more, so he’s surely not satisfied—definitely not until he gets the Spiderman gig or at least The Donald Glover Show. So he used to get a good night’s sleep when he was a poor kid, but now that he’s rich and successful, he doesn’t. Be careful what you wish for…
“I used to wake up in a bed between my mom and aunt/Playin’ with this Land Before Time toy from Pizza Hut.”
Back in the days, when he was able to dream, he’d do so in a virtual womb, sleeping sandwiched between two women who loved him intensely. No wonder he felt comfortable enough to dream. So when he was poor he was happier and more content than when he’s rich and successful. I love that at top of the song he talks about dreaming and then about waking up because it places the beginning of the story at the start of his day, which feels apropos.
The Land Before Time reference works double time. First, it establishes where we are in history in a much more elegant way than saying “it was 1988.” This, in screenwriting, would be called good exposition. Second, Glover was about five when the movie and toy came out, so his Land Before Time toys evoke the Garden of Eden feel of early childhood—a place that exists before time, before you know how to tell time, before you enter the rat race, before life gets real.
“My dad works nights/Puttin’ on a stone face/He's saving up so we can get our own place/In the projects, man that sound fancy to me.”
I love this dad character even though we barely get to see him. He’s so rare in hip-hop, which is so deeply shaped by a lack of fathers.
Dad is a saintly and stoic character, working hard to move the family up. I love this dad character even though we barely get to see him. He’s so rare in hip-hop, which is so deeply shaped by a lack of fathers. Look at the coldness of Jay-Z, formed by being abandoned by his dad at 10, or the spoiled-bratness of Kanye, stemming from his single-parent childhood, or Lil Wayne, the runaway wild-child working to please his surrogate father Birdman. There are very few positive mentions of biological fathers in hip-hop (Nas and Common are notable examples, and even their fathers were relatively distant presences).
This lack of positive discussions about fathers in hip-hop—as opposed to the many loving mentions of mothers—is emblematic of the widespread dislocation from our fathers that our generation has suffered. Our lack of fathers has led us to search for manhood in the street and to bond tightly with our brothers, hence hip-hop crews filled with men that are like families. Against that backdrop, Gambino’s father stands out as a great example of a hard-working man who’s devoted to his family. No wonder Glover works so hard at his three jobs; he’s his father’s son.
“They called me fat nose/My mom say, you handsome to me/Mrs. Glover, ma’am, your son is so advanced/But he's acting up in class and keeps peeing in his pants.”
The line about black shit and hood shit is one of the most important lyrics in hip-hop this year. It says quickly and cleanly and unrepentantly that there’s a difference between race and class. Blackness is not subsumed by the hood and the hood is not subsumed by Blackness.
The transitions in this verse are elegant, leaping from present-day reflections to childhood memories and now, here, to school life. Gambino packs in observations about racial norms of beauty and intelligence. Young Glover is smart but troubled with a sharp mind and an immature body that he’s not in control of. The lines shift easily from his mom talking to him, to someone talking to his mom about him.
“And I just wanna fit in, but nobody was helping me out/They talking hood shit and I ain't know what that was about/Cause hood shit and Black shit is super different.”
This last line is one of the most important lyrics in hip-hop this year. It says quickly and cleanly and unrepentantly that there’s a difference between race and class. Blackness is not subsumed by the hood and the hood is not subsumed by Blackness. The working class has no hegemony over defining Blackness. Glover knows Blackness but not hood life, because his parents are trying to shield him from all that. This reminds me of the line “Fuck being hard/Posdnous is complicated,” from De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, those moments when MCs demand freedom from the dominance of the hood and the narrow box that is “acting tough.”