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Childish Gambino and the Search for the Summer Anthem

The summer anthem yields to ritual. An untiring breed of musical ambrosia, its genealogy extends from slowburners like Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” (1993) to the arena-scale decadence of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (2007) and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (2010). But while the end result differs each time, the summer anthem commonly and above all embodies renovation: old frameworks made anew.

Consider Childish Gambino’s “Summer Magic” and “Feels Like Summer,” two bright gumdrops that summon the nostalgia of the season and further play into Donald Glover’s emergence as a self-styled enchanter. Issued Wednesday on Spotify as the EP Summer Pack, they are dreamlike psalms about the geography of romance and longing: for love, for a better world. “Oh I know you know my pain/I’m hoping that this world will change, but it just seems the same,” he sings on “Feels Like Summer,” which could just as easily be a comment on global warming. (In the second verse he offers: “Every day gets hotter than the one before/Running out of water, it’s about to go down.”)

In sentiment, at least, the twined songs rival an anthem like Marvin Gaye’s perennial “What’s Going On?”—simmering groves that don’t announce themselves so much as they quietly glide into the conversation, as if they were already there. Their collective mood is seas apart from his May release, the artfully alive “This Is America.” Ever the trickster, Gambino agitates the conventions of song-making by overloading the word “summer”; he infuses his ceremonial melodies with ambiguity, anxiety, tenderness, and soul. The result is songs that, really, don’t say much of anything even when we want them to.

It’s a disconcerting move from an artist whose work is, at its core, playful and polyphonic in expression. Still, as much as Gambino juggles the tropes of hip-hop and R&B, no one can resist the draw of making a summer hit. He doesn’t necessarily succeed here—I don’t imagine these songs will command the charts or relentlessly blast from car windows down sweaty Brooklyn blocks—but it is a worthy attempt all the same.

These days, defining the summer anthem seems indistinguishable from chart dominance. As of this week, Drake’s New Orleans-inspired “Nice For What” holds the top spot on Billboard’s Songs of Summer list and the Hot 100. (It’s also one of seven Drake songs monopolizing the Hot 100’s top ten spots.) But while manufacturing a summer anthem—or what becomes known as “song of the summer”—hews to no logic, it remains an irresistible fetish for artists. Summer is a time of intense languor, a period that offers unrivaled ubiquity. Every bodega radio, every cookout and beach day and late-night bonfire welcomingly offers it up, day after day, again and again. The prize for an anthem isn’t a charting single; it’s becoming the soundtrack to a nation’s memories.

So anthems chase those memories with memories of their own: love, ease, abandon. Think “Summertime” by Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (1991), “Waterfalls” by TLC (1995), “Hot In Here” by Nelly (2002),“Never Leave You” by Lumidee (2003), “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen (2012), “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (2013), “Lean On” by Major Lazer (2015), and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (2017). Above all, these are songs designed to hypnotize the listener, to embrace the hallmarks of the season—an unforgettable hook, lyrics that manifest like images out of comic books and classic films—while being only as potent as the context in which we listen.

The prize for an anthem isn’t a charting single; it’s becoming the soundtrack to a nation’s memories.

The summer anthem doesn’t signal what is to come—it’s occupied purely with the moment, the now—but it does reveal how the moods of the industry have shifted across the years, creatively and commercially. This year’s contenders build on the past with spellbinding technique. It’s unfair to corral all of them into one neat description, but what they do all have in common is a fondness for cross-cultural exchange. Drake’s “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings” (Scorpion’s ascendant sleeper hit) look to Louisiana from his perch in Toronto. Londoner Ella Mai borrows American soul on “Boo’d Up,” an eternal summer bop. With the help of Colombian reggaetón star J Balvin and Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, Cardi B crystalizes the Latin diaspora into sneering exegesis on “I Like It.” Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa fuss with the textures of queer Euro-pop on “One Kiss.” A stew of disparate cultures, “The Middle” hints at globalized prosperity as Russian-German producer Zedd teams with EDM duo Grey and country singer Maren Morris for an idyllic club hit.

Still, these songs come to us as rituals. And as all rituals must, the summer anthem eventually dissolves, leaving in its traces the memories of a time that felt as if it might last forever. For now, “Nice For What” sits comfortably atop the Billboard charts, but the guarantee of summer remains: like a dawning sun on a hot July day, there is a promise of something more, something new laden within its very sight, even as we revel in the here and now.

Cardi B by Dimitrios Kambouris; Glover by Paras Griffen/BET; Drake by Jamie McCarthy/TNT; Mai by Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images


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