What does it mean to Beyoncé? It’s not just to dance exceptionally well or put out a song that instantly becomes etched into the fabric of culture for all eternity–although those things help. To Beyoncé is to so overwhelmingly dominate a moment with one’s talent, showmanship, and marketing savvy that people speak of little else for an entire weekend. (Doing the same thing by saying a bunch of dumb garbage means you’ve Donald’d or, increasingly, Kanye’d.) Think of the legendary surprise album drop. Or that other one. Think of #Beychella. Think of the time she dropped “Formation” and rocked the Super Bowl halftime show the very next day.
Well, reader, this weekend, Donald Glover clearly Beyoncé’d, hitting a high note in an ever-ascending career.
Smack dab in the middle of a triumphant season two of his hit show, Atlanta, fresh off a Grammy win, and just before he stars in the new Star Wars, Glover was already having a moment. However, this weekend he demonstrated such range and ability, it was as if he concentrated two months’ worth of cool projects into two days. First came his Saturday Night Live appearance, during which he served as both host and musical guest–and premiered a new song–and then he released the video for a second new song, one that so brilliantly summed up these very weird times that you just had to stop dead in your tracks and watch it, probably more than once. When we trace the arc of Glover’s career years from now, it is likely that this weekend will be remembered as the moment he hit a new level.
Glover’s appearance on Saturday Night Live was remarkable for a number of reasons. For one thing, his career has taken so many varied routes over the years–between his role on Community, his albums, and creating Atlanta–that it’s easy to forget he got his start with the sketch group Derrick. As Glover’s Day One fans knew, hosting SNL would be more of a return to this style of comedy than a debut or litmus test. Also, Glover famously auditioned to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live in 2008 but didn’t make the cut. Killing it on this long-awaited first shot at hosting would send a strong message to Lorne Michaels: “Look at what you could have had. You done fucked up.”
At first, the sketch that generated the most conversation was one that Glover did not appear in. This week’s cold open featured such a dizzying array of guests, including Scarlet Johansson, Jimmy Fallon, Ben Stiller, and even Stormy Daniels herself, that it became an instant Twitter lightning rod. Soon enough, though, as it became clear that Glover was the linchpin in a terrific episode, the conversation drifted back his way.
Glover shined as Lando Calrissian, his character from the forthcoming Solo: a Star Wars Story.
He freaked it in “Friendos,” a parody of the rap group Migos, which Glover has collaborated with on Atlanta, and whose music he’s professed much love for.
He showed off what a customer service call center in prison might sound like.
He slayed that new song.
And he also appeared in the most memorable sketch of the night, “A Kanye Place,” which sent up the recent horror hit A Quiet Place with a Kanye twist–and ultimately highlighted the unflattering differences between West and Glover right now. One is making amazing art in many different directions, while the other is mostly just making a mess of his legacy. (For his part, Kanye was a good sport about the sketch, but perhaps he was just happy to be talked about.)
Glover took a victory lap after the show by releasing the incendiary music video, “This Is America.” The social media response was rabid and sustained, riding out the entire day, mostly competing with people who had DVR’d SNL and were slowly catching up to “A Kanye Place” and Glover’s searing musical performances from the previous night.
Directed by Atlanta helmer Hiro Murai, “This Is America” already feels like a landmark video, the kind that would inspire an SNL parody had its creator not just hosted the show. It’s a surreal master class in contrasts, where a shirtless Glover is dancing ecstatically one moment and gunning down a church choir the next. Rather than glorify gun violence, the video is clearly intended to point out the unspeakable evils we live with but that hardly register as jarring anymore. It encapsulates police brutality, mass shootings, racial politics, and the media’s role in all of this–all soundtracked by a stone cold jam. If this video had been the only thing Glover did this weekend, it still would have been a huge weekend for him. The fact that it came on the heels of a lauded SNL dual-performance made it an unmistakable Beyoncé instead.
Donald Glover has always been someone who’s easy to root for. After this weekend, I doubt there’s anyone left who would bet against him.