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.”
“So I'm talking hood shit and cool it now like New Edition/Mom and dad wouldn't listen/They left the Bronx so I wouldn't be that.”
Redman’s great song “I’ll Bee Dat”gets a sly reference here—Glover’s parents pointedly don’t want him to be that, and they work hard to move him away from the birthplace of hip-hop and a symbol of urban decay because they want him to have a better life. But parents just don’t understand. Glover wants to get along with his peers.
Even though the Glovers haven’t traveled far classwise, Gambino touches on inter-class difficulties within the Black community. Working-class resentment of the middle class is real—though rarely discussed—and sometimes reasonable. Middle-class superiority complexes do exist. But working-class inferiority complexes are sometimes to blame.
“All their friends in NY deal crack/It's weird, you think that they'd be proud of ’em/ But when you leave the hood they think that you look down on ’em.”
Even though the Glovers haven’t traveled far classwise, Gambino touches on inter-class difficulties within the Black community. Working-class resentment of the middle class is real—though rarely discussed—and sometimes reasonable. Middle-class superiority complexes do exist. But working-class inferiority complexes are sometimes to blame. To literally leave your working class community is not always applauded. It can be seen as threatening, a sign that you’re “leaving us” altogether. The Glovers moved from New York to Georgia in hopes of finding a better life for their son, but couldn’t leave without some of their neighbors’ baggage.
“Truth is we still struggle on a different plane/$7 dollars an hour, WIC vouchers, it's all the same/Facebook messaging hopin' that could patch up shit/ but all they get now is, ‘Can your son read this script?’”
You could spell it plane—a figurative level—or plain—a literal space (as in, a prairie). Not sure which Glover means but it doesn’t really matter—either way he’s saying we’re fighting the same battle in a different place. We haven’t left you behind. We’re still on a plantation. I love the image of the parents using Facebook to try to keep those neighborhood ties alive, but finding that their old friends no longer relate to them in the old way. They just want to know if Glover can help them rise up. It’s a clichéd joke in Hollywood that every valet parker has a script he’s pushing. Glover transports that idea back to his old Bronx hood, positing that there, too, everyone’s got a script to peddle.
“Dad lost his job/Mama worked at Mrs. Winner's/Gun pulled in her face/She still made dinner.”
He already told us how strong and stoic his dad is. Now it’s mom’s turn to get an epic compliment. She’s working at Mrs. Winner’s, a fried chicken restaurant popular in the South, and even after getting attacked she goes on to take care of her family like nothing’s happened. Anyone could understand someone needing to unplug and lie down after that sort of traumatic moment, but Mrs. Glover does not. She’s the salt of the earth, providing for her family all day and all night.
“‘Donald watch the meter so they don't turn the lights off’/Workin' two jobs so I can get into that white school/ And I hate it there, they all make fun of my clothes and wanna touch my hair.”
Being exoticized sucks. In grade school some white people wanted to touch my hair. They just wanted to see what it felt like. They meant well. I was young but I was like, Fuck that shit. You ain’t petting me. This ain’t the zoo."
What great parents Glover has—worried about every penny and still determined to get him into a great school. And they succeed, only to find that this school is not a great fit for him because of the culture clash. (Where he wasn’t Black—excuse me—hood enough for the previous school, in this one he’s so Black he stands out as exotic.)
I’ve talked to lots of Black kids at prep schools who found themselves hating the environment there even while they understood the educational value, because being exoticized sucks. Having people want to, for example, touch your hair because it’s so different is annoying as hell. In grade school some white people wanted to touch my hair. They just wanted to see what it felt like. They meant well. I was young but I was like, "Fuck that shit. You ain’t petting me. This ain’t the zoo."
“And my uncle on that stuff that got my grandma shook/Drug dealers roughed him up and stole his address book/He's supposed to pay 'em back he owe 'em money but his bank account is zero/So my momma made us sleep with phillips heads under the pillow/Like that would do somethin'/But she's got six kids, she gotta do somethin.”
Love that first line—heavy drugs sometimes make the user shake, but this guy’s on drugs so serious they’re making his relatives shake with fear for his future. Also, Glover being in a great school doesn’t change much—he’s still got family drama that’s changing his home life. I love the detail that they’ve got Phillips head screwdrivers and not just screwdrivers. That level of specificity makes the story come alive that much more—I can see little Donald shivering under the covers, eyes darting back and forth, clutching his Phillips head in case some thugs come in through the window with real weapons.
Up until now the story has been all about Glover sounding like an only child, but here suddenly he mentions he’s got five brothers and sisters! Shouldn’t they have been mentioned before? That’s a huge family! Glover’s parents welcomed a lot of foster kids into their home and also adopted kids. Where are they in this story? That’s for another rhyme.
“She don't want me in a lifestyle like my cousin/And he mad cause his father ain't around/He lookin' at me now, like ‘Why you so fuckin’ lucky?’/I had a father too/But he ain't around so I'ma take it out on you’”/ We used to say “I love you”/Now we only think that shit/It feels weird that you're the person I took sink baths with/Street took you over, I want my cousin back.”
This is in large part what my book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is about—be Black however you want to be—and a reason why some say the messages of my book are echoed throughout Camp.
The breakdown of his relationship with his cousin is heartbreaking. Throughout the story his relationships with family members have been positive and sustaining, but this particular side of the family keeps hurting the others. I love the economy of using the sink baths detail as a rapid way of saying we were really close when we were babies. The class conflicts that he’s been talking about are in motion here: where Glover’s parents have been working hard to keep him away from the street influence, his cousin has been taken over by the street and their relationship is damaged by that.
“The world saying what you are because you're young and Black/Don't believe 'em/You're still that kid that kept the older boys from teasin'/For some reason.”
The first few lines here are so powerful. The world tells you what it means to be young and Black—some of those messages are criminal, renegade, monster, some of them are brilliant, creative, fascinating, performer—and many of us select from the messages we get to form our personality.
It’s impossible to totally divorce yourself from what the world says you are. We all take cues from what the world tells us about ourselves. Sociologists call this the looking-glass self. But you don’t have to be exactly who the world tells you to be—you don’t have to believe that. Reject the white gaze, reject all external gazes, and be who you want to believe. Don’t buy what they’re selling you about yourself. What a powerful message. This is in large part what my book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? is about—be Black however you want to be—and a reason why some say the messages of my book are echoed throughout Camp.