Glover labored over the track during his Awaken, My Love! recording sessions in 2016, then into ‘17 and ‘18 as he searched for the right tone to ignite his propulsive protest jam, sometimes laying down a single line 50 different ways. “Then he'd be like, ‘Man, let's go back to the first one,’” says Dru Castro, another engineer -- one of nine credited on “This Is America” -- who recorded vocals with Glover in late 2017. “He was like a scientist exploring all the possibilities.”
The tedium paid off; Glover’s vision of “America” -- with Young Thug, Slim Jxmmi (of Rae Sremmurd), BlocBoy JB, Quavo, and 21 Savage all adding ad libs -- was an instant smash. Critics and fans alike hailed the track as an unflinching reflection of racism, gun violence and police brutality -- an emphatic anti-authoritarian statement with swag to spare.
It was a rare protest hit in an era when listeners, for a variety of divisive and tragic reasons, have called for popular music to better mirror the times. On May 14, 2018 it became the 31st single to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 (also Glover’s first chart-topper) -- following Glover’s debut of the song on Saturday Night Live two weekends earlier, where he served as both host and musical guest.
While the song was brilliant in its own right, with its dichotomous pairing of jaunty South African choral singing and menacing trap pulse, much of its virality was bound to its visual -- easily one of the most incendiary and unforgettable music videos in recent memory.
Directed by Hiro Murai, a collaborator on Glover’s acclaimed FX dramedy, Atlanta, the provocative piece depicted a shirtless Glover as a figure plucked from an unfortunate history, donning traditional slave pants and posing as a Jim Crow caricature while he commits acts of violence and bops through a warehouse that gradually erupts into chaos around him.
“When we first saw it, it was an immediate jaw drop,” says John Fleckenstein, co-President of RCA Records, which released the song. “It was pretty clear that it was going to have a major impact.”