“I don’t see them as priorities, I see them all as one thing. I see them as another form of expressing yourself. I think it’s important to express yourself and show people who you are. It is one of those things where I feel like... I never look at it as a priority. Sometimes I have to. But in general, I don’t see them as separate things.”
That was Donald Glover back in 2010. In an interview with The Comic’s Comic, the then-27-year-old was trying to explain his already multifaceted career. He had walked away from his gig as a writer for NBC’s Emmy-winning sitcom 30 Rock (Tina Fey snagged him while he was still a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts), had appeared in Comedy Central stand-up specials, and was starring as jock-turned-nerd Troy Barnes on Community. And since 2008, he’d also been releasing music independently as rapper Childish Gambino.
Trading on an outsider persona, Glover rapped about struggling to fit in as a “different” sort of black kid in a way that was sometimes revelatory, sometimes grating. He referenced growing up an outcast among black kids he lived around and white kids he would go to school with. “They all make fun of my clothes and wanna touch my hair,” he rapped on “Outside,” the opening track from his 2011 debut studio album, Camp. In many ways, Gambino owes to Kanye West’s emergence in the early 2000s; he carried a similar sense of relative misfit angst born of not fitting in with the “hood kids.”
But there was always an undercurrent of skepticism that seemed to follow everything Childish Gambino would do. Was his music career a goof—or was his acting career? His music was well-reviewed, but relative critical acclaim didn’t endear Gambino to a lot of hip-hop fans who couldn’t get past the fact that he was a comedian and sitcom star. An appearance on HBO’s Girls as star Lena Dunham’s short-lived love interest felt as though Dunham was pandering to critics who’d criticized the show for its lily-white cast—and it wasn’t exactly a boost for Glover’s credibility as an artist. But in his music, his oddball sense of humor didn’t obscure the fact that he was one of the most effectively introspective rappers in hip-hop.
And yet, he hadn’t quite hit a home run.
A late 2013 appearance on Sway In the Morning, during which Gambino rhymed over Drake’s “Pound Cake” beat, started to swing public perception. His freestyle was lauded, and it gave him a certain credibility that had been elusive up to that point. People began to take this guy seriously.
His third official studio album, 2013’s Because the Internet, seemed to further signal that the winds were changing. Gambino was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2015 Grammy Awards (where …Internet lost to Eminem’s egregiously overpraised Marshall Mathers LP 2). Three months prior to the album’s release, Glover had posted his personal handwritten notes to himself on Instagram, revealing his own insecure musings and fears—including admitted self-loathing and guilt that he felt after walking away from Community. The move shocked some fans, but it further humanized a guy that had first risen to prominence cracking jokes and playing characters. Revealing who Donald Glover was helped the world see Childish Gambino more clearly.
“Folks are sleeping on him, because they seen him on TV first,” Sway told Complex in 2014. “They think he’s corny or they don’t give him a shot. As he continues to evolve he’s differentiating himself from the others.”
His stint voicing Miles Morales on Ultimate Spider-Man led to a high-profile internet campaign for Glover to land the gig as the beloved webslinger in the highly-anticipated reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming. Glover ultimately wasn’t cast as Spider-Man (though he will be appearing in the film) but the reception to Because the Internet and word of a new deal with FX for his own television series had Glover highlighted as one of the people to watch at the start of 2016. The buzz for his upcoming show began to build steadily over the months before Atlanta premiered, arriving at a time when the television landscape was set to be bursting with new Black shows.
Atlanta became the sleeper hit of the fall. Glover’s vision—the story of a crew of ambitiously aimless friends struggling to push ahead in “The A”—struck a perfect balance: There’s a universal relatability that seemed to resonate with audiences far and wide, along with just enough idiosyncrasies particular to the South’s most self-consciously cosmopolitan city to resonate with those who know the ATL. The series premiere had the highest basic cable comedy ratings of any show since Inside Amy Schumer in 2013, and it was FX’s highest-rated comedy premiere since Wilfred in 2011. As the hapless Ern, Glover excels at communicating a staggering immaturity and irresponsibility in his character, but also making sure to keep Ern just redeemable enough for you to hope he gets his shit together. But Atlanta’s charm wasn’t limited to Glover’s acting—the show is perfectly cast, written with wit and heart, and effectively juggles laugh-out-loud moments with poignant (and even dark) examinations on daily life for young Black people attempting to carve out their own destiny in a city with as many slackers as success stories.
Glover’s show signified that his quirks were the earmarks of a new auteur in popular entertainment, and it set the stage for his ambitious follow-up to Because the Internet. He’d unofficially premiered “Me and Your Mama” at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2015, but the single was finally released in early November and piqued fans’ curiosity for what could be coming next. Just as Atlanta was winding down its first season, it was officially announced that Childish Gambino would be dropping a new album at the start of December. After “Redbone” hit the internet a week later, it was obvious that this was going to be a different kind of Gambino album: one that was less indie rap and more of a funk revival. In a year that had seen it’s fair share of retro-fetishizing (from Bruno Mars’ affectionate aping of Minneapolis-era funk and New Jack Swing grooves on 24K Magic to Frank Ocean’s Beach Boys-and-Beatles jones on full display on Blond) it felt almost expected for somebody to mine the depths of P-Funk and Sly Stone for new inspiration.
But very few probably expected that someone to be Childish Gambino. And even fewer may have predicted that he would do it so masterfully.
“Awaken, My Love!” features Gambino comfortably slipping into a ’70s funk haze—complete with wailing vocals and whirring synths. It’s one of the boldest musical detours in recent memory for a guy who was already reaching new heights of visibility and acclaim with the success of Atlanta. This, for all intents and purposes, was a risky move. But those have become fairly standard for Donald Glover. And in embracing the music of the 1970s, part of what he connected with was a sense of creative, cultural and spiritual liberation.
“It felt like people were trying to get out of their minds, with all the things that were happening—and that are happening right now,” he told Billboard last month. “How do you start a global revolution, really? Is that possible with the systems we’ve set up? There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution.”
As recently as a year ago, you may have been hard-pressed to find anyone who seriously thought of Donald Glover as any kind of revolutionary—creative or otherwise. But in building a career on his own terms, in embracing every facet of his creativity and exposing his insecurities and eccentricities through almost every facet of his public persona, he is very much a creative revolutionary in popular culture. Specifically, Glover sits alongside Black millennial creatives like Issa Rae, Kendrick Lamar and Solange Knowles in reshaping the American pop culture landscape in a way that mirrors the societal shifts that have taken place in recent years as a generation has come of age and come to define itself for itself.
Glover’s pulled it off in such a decisive fashion that you wonder why more people didn’t see this coming. He’s refused to be boxed in from virtually the beginning of his career, wearing as many hats as possible as he plucked away and built a big enough name for himself to start executing his own ideas. Of course, there will be fans who have been riding with the guy since 30 Rock and those early mixtapes who will scoff at all of the adulation that has come with Donald Glover: Superstar. They have every right to wag their finger at the rest of us. What once seemed scattershot and unfocused now all seems like a brilliant creative journey that has coalesced into Donald Glover’s very, very big 2016. He’s gone from the writer’s room to the stand-up stage and from nerd-rap dark horse to neo-funk revivalist. The best thing any of us can do now is just go along for the ride.
Can’t wait to see where he goes from here.