Ep. 5 – “Telegraph Ave. (‘Oakland’ by Lloyd)” by Childish Gambino

MetA” (from the Greek μετά-, meta-, meaning “after” or “beyond”): a prefix meaning more comprehensive or transcending.

“Telegraph Ave.” features a meta “song-within-a-song” structure and scores The Boy driving to Oakland. As “Oakland” by LLoyd transcends the car radio into the screenplay, we watch The Boy, now in the driver’s seat, symbolically taking agency over his life.

Singer-songwriter Lloyd’s most well known feature on Young Money’s 2009 track Bedrock. Lloyd’s appearance on “Telegraph Ave” is not a traditional feature, as the fictional song “Oakland” forms the basis of the track.

He told me, ‘It’s going to be your song but I’m going to sample it inside the song.’ I had no clue how he was going to do it, but it came out dope.”

Lloyd on the collaboration in Vibe Magazine

Glover and Lloyd both attended the same high school, the DeKalb School of the Arts. We have to acknowledge the real-life bond between the two, since Glover has intertwined reality and fiction throughout BTI. In this case, Lloyd becomes the voice of emotion The Boy is incapable of communicating himself.

As The Boy is listening in his car, we hear Gambino sing along with a few words and a phone chimes with a text notification – mirroring The Boy’s actions in the script. He’s texted an ex-girlfriend, Nyla, that he’s coming to see her in Oakland, to which she replies, “DONT” in all caps.

A real billboard during the BTI era that only says “ROSCOE’S WETSUIT.” The Boy speeds past this billboard on the highway on his way to Oakland.

Besides the parallels in the lyrics that are undeniable, the thing that seems to separate the pair is Oakland – both in terms of physical distance, and Lloyd’s description of the woman, that “everything [she does] is so Oakland.”

The relationship in this song is based on one of Glover’s real-life relationships, where he would drive between Oakland and LA to see a girl.

“Foot on the gas…I’m ready to go.”

As the hook communicates a fast, no-stop attitude or commitment to love, this phrasing is actually a reference to Gambino’s 2011 hit “Heartbeat,” a song detailing sex and infidelity under the veil of oscillating swagger and anxiety. Given that “Heartbeat” appears on Camp, the precursor to Because the Internet’s narrative, we see a clear parallel, where Gambino appears to be repeating a mistake of the past.

The Boy and his crew stop for lunch at In-N-Out Burger. As The Boy eats, he laughs thinking about the cows at the slaughterhouse they passed on the highway. Two guys pull guns out and go inside to rob the place. As people run out and get in their cars, the crew just watches, making fun of the robbers for not using codenames. 

As they watch the robbery in progress, the crew mimics a news broadcast, narrating the scene in front of them in realtime. Part of the fictional broadcast includes the crew saying the suspect “managed to get guns and shoot themselves in the head.” This is likely a reference to Chavis Carter, a 21-year old Black man in Arkansas who died on July 29, 2012.

The official investigation and report ruled that Carter had a gun that officers did not find after 2 searches, and while handcuffed in the back of their police vehicle, shot himself in the head. Protests and online movements called into question the suspicious report by the police.

“And if I [buried/married] you tonight it would probably start a riot in Oakland.”

MARRIED / Buried

At first, these lines seem to reflect a growing sense of concern for the possibility of a committed relationship, of marriage, so much so that Gambino’s worries rise to the level of a riot. But Gambino seems to purposely suggest both “married you tonight” and/or “buried you tonight.” Given the morbid undercurrent of the verse so far, we could see this as the conclusion of Gambino’s thinking that marriage, or lifelong commitment to a single partner, is akin to death.

“Telegraph Ave.” was released via a tweet from actor Michael b. Jordan.

At the time, Jordan was promoting the based-on-real-events film Fruitvale Station, where he starred as Oscar Grant, an African-American man who was killed by police officers while taking the BART train in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. 

Fruitvale Station was scored by BTI producer Ludwig Göransson, and directed by Ryan Coogler, Glover’s friend and collaborator. Here’s Coogler and Jordan talking about the release of Telegraph Ave.

With Jordan, Glover has once again combined real and fictional elements to imbue this love song with reminders of racial tension and police brutality. While fans were clamoring for the leaked track, they would go download it from an actor playing Oscar Grant, a reminder of what happened to him, a reminder of systemic shortcomings in America.  Audiences couldn’t just eat the cake, they had to eat their vegetables, too.

We know that our hero isn’t this great beast…but that doesn’t matter now.”

Writer Trey Smith on the Telegraph Ave (“Oakland”) music video

In the video, a warped-utopian worldview depicts Gambino and singer Jhene Aiko roaming the island of Kauai before locals attack Gambino, trying to warn Aiko to run away. Quoting writer Trey Smith, “[The locals] run out and try to get Jhene to come with them, believing that they’re protecting her. As they attempt to lead her away, Gambino arises in a new, monstrous form, lashing back at his attackers after becoming the very thing they were afraid he’d become.

Smith continued: “This new form represents how he will be presented to the rest of the world as a consequence of his reaction to their transgressions against him. They are dead, Jhene is terrified, and Donald has to once again deal with outside forces making him something he’s not. We know that our hero isn’t this great beast the locals assumed he was, but that doesn’t matter now.”

When taken as a whole, we begin to realize how  Gambino has packaged whispers of danger and racial tension into Telegraph Ave. and BTI more generally. It’s the sonic equivalent of what the Professor David A. Harris termed “driving while black” – the idea that, as a black person in America, there are certain added threats and stresses that are ever-present, invisible until they are not.

“And you wanna be a mom and I wasn’t mad at it / I was thinking ’bout me, I’d be really bad at it. / Cuz I’m thinking ’bout me.”

The “Shorty George” Dance

In live performances during Telegraph Ave’s instrumental bridge, Gambino would often do a dance move called the “Shorty George” — named after a famous Harlem dancer from the 1920s and 30s, “Shorty” George Snowden. Snowden was known for using his small stature for comedic effect while dancing with taller partners.

The move is often associated with self-parody, as a dancer diminishes or pokes fun at themself in contrast with their partner. It’s a perfect reflection of the lyrical content of this last verse.

Love is the greatest gift humans have.

During live performances of “Telegraph Ave.” on the Deep Web Tour, the song was prefaced by a passage of advice from The Boy’s deceased mother. Here, The Boy’s Mother tells him, “Love is the greatest gift humans have. Being loved in return, is a luxury, and if it doesn’t happen don’t close yourself off that’s all that I ask. Your father, he’s got his own thing. But you don’t have to be that. You’re not him… Love is the greatest gift humans have.”

 There’s nostalgia in sending telegraphs, in romanticizing the past. But the reality is, that time is over, and your memory now is in many ways a facade. It’s impossible to recreate things just as they were, and growing up demands us to move forward, whether we want to or not.

Music Video Analysis

In the music video, Gambino is accompanied by Jhene Aiko, who will appear later as Naomi in the script, and they’re vacationing in Kauai before Gambino gets attacked by locals and he’s revealed to be a deadly alien. The music videos appear to string narrative points that offer parallels and comparisons between different sections of the central, scripted BTI narrative. There are plenty of theories out on the web on the music videos as an extended narrative metaphor for being a black man in America.

Telegraph Ave. depicts scenes in Kauai – as in, the setting for most of the follow-up mixtape, Kauai. Thus, it provides yet another link in the warped, manipulated timeline that ties together the musical works. The dissonance between the script and the music video is highlighted by the different locales. While the script describes an industrial drive by a slaughterhouse, the video’s drive is incredibly lush.

Gambino’s monster attack in Telegraph Ave appears to be the culmination of the alien subplot within the music videos, which began in “The Worst Guys” when we see a parasite attached to Glover’s leg.

The videos both spend significant time at the beach, with Gambino swimming in the ocean. In “Telegraph Ave,” there’s a mysterious creature swimming with him. The shots above are clear parallels, although we never see any clear action or indication of their relationship.

Quite honestly – the music video subplot is a mystery. Between the parasite bite and the monster’s murder, there’s a world to explore. Regardless of the specifics, the music videos offer a fascinating exploration of outsider identity – the alien potentially representing a vessel for Glover’s feelings of being excluded.

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