An abstract graphic animation that envisions The Boy’s surreal experience of a world somewhere in between life and death, this video follows the abrupt ending of No Exit. This animation is scored by BTI’s next track (audible in the video), the beginning of Act 4, “Death by Numbers.”
Death by Numb(ers)
The title holds a duality: organic and geometric, natural and digital: death and life being natural states, and numbers representing the digital through lines of code and technology. The title represents the coexistence of the two, their interwoven nature and the heightened tension between them.
“Slide baby, I’m gonna let it go / No one has to know, so let it / Slide.”
Amidst a dreamy haze of distortion, Gambino lets go of his grip on his mortal coil and slides into another state of consciousness, perhaps even experiencing the beginning stages of death.
We also notice the use of the word “slide” again, as we’ve seen the Brown Recluse Spiders ask The Boy “……where are you?,” and then “…………….who is this?,” before the direction, “…don’t slide.” What Gambino sings here, “Slide baby, I’m gonna let it go,” is him telling himself to stop wrestling with the pursuit of purpose as he gives up and slides toward death.
In short, the video is symbolic of the algorithmic interconnectedness of all things, conveyed through the integration of symbolic shapes and patterns and the fusing of natural and digital building blocks of the universe. It’s a surreal experience brought on by The Boy’s overdose and near-death experience. These are the patterns, the loops that make up the algorithm that encompasses all.
First, there is an old-timey countdown circle…
…followed by a rotating pyramid which contains a series of smaller pyramids.
This cuts to a waxing and waning visualizer of ovals…
…followed by the above bright kaleidoscopic array.
Next, a loading-type animation depicts a series of circling lines surrounding and uncovering a rotating triangle.
This gives way to a blood-red orb that expands and distorts…
…in front of the blind-like artwork from the back of the physical CD…
…which we recognize as nearly identical to the orb from the visualizer for the opening track, The Library.
This series of images then gets broken by an extreme close up of Glover’s mouth as he says “wow” in tandem with the track. It’s as if his mind is blown by the visions he is having as he slips away…
…but this vocalization is followed by a shot of a rotating disco ball, shining…
…until a new countdown appears, with the text saying “Life” as it counts down; 3..2..1… and the same high-pitched loading sound as happened at the end of I. Crawl.
You can recognize each of these visualizers rear-centerstage as moving paintings framed in The Boy’s living room as part of The Deep Web Tour.
During performances of this track, a screen fell in front of Gambino and depicted the album’s liner artwork, a series of clashing geometric patterns.
These graphics also appeared in The Boy’s Room installation, and which designer Brian Roettinger described as an attempt to represent the influence of technology on contemporary existence.
Circles and spheres are often associated with life, cycles, and nature.
We’ve seen them pop up in BTI with the infinity pool, spiral staircase, and more. Perhaps most simply, the circles play off the idea of the Circle of Life – the perpetual cycle of life and death.
Gambino combines these circular images with triangles – both two dimensional and their three dimensional counterpart, tetrahedrons (or pyramids). Triangles are traditionally symbolic of strength, action, or movement. There’s a reason the “play” symbol is a triangle – it represents action, in part because it indicates direction.
The triangle also represents strength, as it is the most solid structure – the only rigid two dimensional shape. There’s a reason it appears so often in architecture, and this is also conveyed in one of the most infamous human representations of action and power: the pyramids.
The tetrahedron plays a special role in Gambino’s vision of infinity, of a space containing both reality and fantasy. The tetrahedron is the building block of our three dimensional world.
Seriously. Watch the video below:
The tetrahedron is the simplest building block of three dimensional reality, and the sphere a representation of life. Glover and Roettinger combine these images with match cuts when and where The Boy exists in a plane between life and death. It’s a trip that attempts to make clear the connections that can be made between everything, the infinity of us all.
Recall the Ferris Wheel of 3005, and its importance in developing the notion of infinity throughout that portion of the BTI world.
The larger exposed shape of the wheel presents itself as a circle, but looking close you see it is created out of beams in triangle formations.
Taking a look to the future of Glover’s career, we see a similar utilization of the shapes in the album cover for “Awaken, My Love!“
The headpiece worn on the cover is actually a dynamic piece of jewelry, a circular shape constructed via many movable triangles and angles – as seen in a behind-the-scenes research video from Pigeons & Planes.
The animation of Death by Numbers is a vision of that togetherness and the future of understanding what is real and what isn’t, what’s true and false. Let’s try and develop the visual building blocks to see how Glover and Roettinger arrived at the graphic animations which convey these ideas. For instance, imagine True and False to be two points in space. These two concepts might be separate.
Now, draw a line to create a spectrum, since we understand there might be gray areas. There could be degrees of truth within a false claim, for instance.
But now let’s take into account subjectivity, the infinite different perspectives that might be perceiving this spectrum, and realize that different perspectives might have completely different ideas of true and false. So we take that line and we rotate it 360 degrees to make a circle.
But that isn’t enough, since that only exists in one dimension, so in order to truly account for the infinity of perspectives and connections, we have to spin and rotate that circle…
…until it makes a three-dimensional sphere…
…like the ones seen in The Library and here in Death by Numbers. This is an expansion of duality into infinity, a reckoning with the immense potential, chaos, and interconnectedness of the universe. And also, they’re all loops, repeating patterns.
This is what The Boy sees as he dies – this is what makes him go, “Wow.”
The disco ball plays off of the fluctuating scarlet orb representing truth and the universe and suggests the fun and dancing of the parties The Boy has become sickened with. However, the disco ball adds the element of reflection, as each panel reflects light and illuminates the outside. The Boy will re-evaluate his frustration, and attempt to see with the light he now recognizes.
The Boy has seen his equivalent of the pearly gates in his near-death experience. These are the patterns, the loops that make up the algorithm that encompasses all.
As the animation nears its end, the word “LIFE” appears on screen, followed by a 3 to 1 countdown. This signals The Boy coming back to consciousness, and as “Death by Numbers” ends, we hear the same clicking, loading sound that we heard at the end of the song “Crawl.”
Flight of the Navigator
Above, the trailer for the film that shares the same name. The track has an interesting backstory related to the film, one that Göransson explained on Genius.com:
“Flight of the Navigator” is produced by Childish Gambino and Ludwig Gorrannson. The track has an interesting backstory, one that Goranson explained on Genius.com. Quote “This is the first song I did on BTI. I remember coming to the mansion and wasn’t really sure about what to expect in terms of my involvement of the album. I hadn’t seen Donald in a while and I felt I had something to prove in terms of being creative and coming up with new sounds if it was gonna be good enough for BTI. We had talked about the movie flight of the navigator earlier during the day so I named the song file flight of the navigator even before we started writing the music.“
– BTI producer Ludwig Göransson
On the Deep Web Tour, Flight of the Navigator was preceded by this monologue from The Boy’s mother, voiced by Gabrielle Union. This time, instead of being represented on stage by a white orb projection, her presence is glowing rainfall.
I had a dream.
I had a dream I was flying over all of us.
There were so many pretty people, so many pretty faces.
This passage depicts a dream sequence, an out-of-body experience as he flies “over all of us,” a group that includes himself, a picture of utopia, beauty, and bliss. The flight also refers to the title of the song, taking the perspective of a “navigator,” someone who is able to look ahead, to map out where to go.
This also correlates with the alien subplot in the music videos. It seems that the ‘outsider’ qualities he feels allow him to use his subjective to see us from another perspective, a superpower that Glover then uses to craft his work and connect with us.
“I talked to some birds, I fell in love again.”
The birds match the flying concept of the dream, while falling in love again alludes to the myriad of failed relationships we’ve seen The Boy grapple with.
The phrase “I fell in love again” also might allude to the opening line of the song Chicago by Sufjan Stevens.
Glover is a massive Sufjan Stevens fan, dedicating an entire mixtape of remixes to Sufjan’s songs, including Chicago.
In Chicago, Sufjan details numerous road trips, celebrating the freedom and mistakes he makes, all the while acknowledging the influences of everything surrounding those journeys. Thematically, it’s this concept of journeys as means for discovery that Gambino might reference on Flight of the Navigator, as The Boy will take something from this unconscious revelation.
“And we sleep in tradition, keep ‘em off in the distance, to tell you, that we haven’t been.”
Here, it seems that ‘tradition,’ the way things have been, refer to the systems our society has in place, and those systems are the darkness obscuring our connections. Our society imposes inequitable law and justice practices and an economic system that requires some people to lose in order for other people to win. Above, this same theme represented in Atlanta.
“Cause I don’t know where to go / and no one else seems to know.”
In a song that embodies so much vulnerability, these lines grapple with Glover assuming the role of navigator – of using The Boy as a model for us to learn and grow through. In interviews, Glover would speak about his adoption of this role and his responsibility in our evolution (as he does in the interview above).
“So we’re left alone, no one left to call upon.”
The dark calling, the fallen knight, these are stand-ins for death, the inevitable outcome of life. But also, a “calling” is a purpose – a reason to live that is first felt, and then responded to. The “dark calling” of death is a reminder that the end result of our life will be lonely death – and this is dark. But this reveals that, while we can, we must call, must find our calling, our purpose. And it appears that the ultimate, most universal calling, is that of each other. The suffering of having no one to call upon, of being lonely, can be abated by the inherent calling we have for one another.
As the song ends, having asked to be held close, Gambino’s final words are “cold wa.” It’s “cold water” cut short. The cold water has been the wake-up call for Gambino on this track, and by ending with these words, the track itself becomes a wake-up call, something we see reflected in the scene Flight of the Navigator scores in the screenplay.
Golden Girls playing on TV adds to our growing list of 90s sitcom references throughout BTI. These 90s classics are symbols of internet nostalgia, indicative of our resistance to moving forward. Given Glover’s comments above, it’s clear that the dead laughs of Golden Girls highlight the need to move forward.
When The Boy talks to the Nurse, their conversation is direct and unforgiving. When The Boy flippantly dismisses the Nurse’s suggestion that he talk to someone, the Nurse doesn’t coddle The Boy. Instead, he points out that if The Boy really had wanted to leave, he would have done so, a statement echoed by Glover in interviews at the time.
When Gambino announced Because The Internet’s live show — the Deep Web Tour — it came by way of an online poster on his website. Included with this poster was a written passage that gave context to the tour and BTI more generally.
“Where’s the ground? Where’s earth? Where’s mom?”
And now we’re headed somewhere. Moment to moment. But we don’t know where and we can’t stop [living]. The internet, our new earth, moves forward only. Leaving behind a curated record.
“Because the Internet” was made to be the soundtrack to this new coding. The reworking of our humanity. Trying to find [each other/ourselves] again after the big bang. Every soul looking for each other like every drop of water looks for the ocean.
Both this passage and Flight of the Navigator convey the experience of journeys after the loss of a mother, and call us to action after the realization that we are all one, all looking to connect with each other.
The passage from the poster continues:
The rules of the internet are the rules of our new universal language. Like the Bible, like the Constitution, we make rules to break later and be better. Pushing forward until we are all just a bodiless conscious. Buzzing through the air trading information, conversing, testing ideas without fear or violence. Free from limit.
Glover again imagines a world in which humanity becomes a formless, bodiless conscious — a harmony and unification only made possible through the free exchange of ideas without the fear of being judged by others for being wrong or making mistakes. Glover often compared this modern push toward freedom to the Civil Rights movement, daring people to take a stance, free from the fear that they might be wrong later.
The passage from the poster concludes:
We have reached a moment where there is no “real” because we don’t care anymore. We can curate what’s real everyday on our timeline or feed. The boundary of what’s real and what we want to be real is as volatile as the worth of a bitcoin or a human heartbeat.
This is an important moment.
But be[a]ware that we’re all making it up as we go. Together.
Our human collective unconscious.
Our deep web.
Learn [to/the] code.
Flight of the Navigator is Because The Internet’s vision of the human collective unconscious as The Boy, our navigator, gives us a tour of Glover’s beautiful vision of the utopian state of true unity and total freedom. From that first line, “I had a dream,” which subtly nods to Martin Luther King’s famous vision of equality and freedom, Glover similarly conveys an experience of unity and oneness.
She chose The Boy, her descendant. And as evident by The Boy’s symbolic status as a universal figure, she chose us – meaning, we ought to choose each other.
“I had a dream”
That first line of “Flight of the Navigator” – “I had a dream” – also begins a new loop within the narrative – and while we won’t be able to Dissect the follow-up projects, STN MTN and Kauai, here’s the first words Gambino speaks there:
It’s another lyrical loop, akin to the one we observed from “rec league” to “look at the rec” in the first half of BTI. After the central transition period of “Death by Numbers,” this now begins a loop tying this album to the follow-up mixtape and EP as a cohesive narrative. The suggestion of this pattern seems to be that any struggles towards freedom are to be repeated – that progress occurs in cycles.