For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, a first listen through the new album from Donald Glover—recorded under his musical pseudonym Childish Gambino—must’ve been a bit jarring. The record, titled “Awaken, My Love!” is wildly divergent from anything that the ambitious 33-year old has ever released before, first and foremost, containing not a single bar of rapping, previously the hallmark of music recorded under the Gambino moniker.
Instead, it takes a hard left turn, coming together as an 11-track, 49-minute long funk/soul album. It’s not the first zig or zag that Glover’s taken this year, due to creating and starring in the most acclaimed television show of 2016, Atlanta, and snagging a headlining role in what will be one of the biggest films of the next few years; it’s just the latest step toward world domination for what’s become an expansive and unignorable creative run.
It was around a decade ago that Glover took his first steps toward prominence when he was part of a comedy troupe, Derrick Comedy, that produced a series of sketches that caught fire in the early days of YouTube. “Bro Rape” and “National Spelling Bee” were among the most popular of the group’s many videos, but the one that was always my favorite—as a high school student, anyway—was a very silly piece that spotlighted Glover, titled “Jerry”. When I say silly, I’m not saying that to be cute or hyperbolic—I mean it in as juvenile and literal of a way as possible. This video is abject, toilet humor nonsense; but to this day it does not fail to make me laugh. The ensemble was funny as a whole, but from the get-go it was evident that there was something special about Glover—his control of the spotlight, his delivery of lines, even the animation in the tone and level of his voice. It was clear that there was a lot of potential for them to tap into.
Not long after, Glover secured a spot as a writer on NBC’s 30 Rock. A successful run there ended when the actor took what became his breakthrough role—playing a thoughtful jock named Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, which spent years on life support due to low ratings, but built up a committed and adoring fanbase along the way. Count me among the faithful for those early years: I was originally attracted to the show not only because of the much-promoted presence of a Joel McHale-Chevy Chase duo, but because it was finally a big role for (who, at that time, in my mind was) “the Derrick Comedy guy.”
Not long into the Community run, a friend of mine told me that Glover had erstwhile begun a musical career, recording under a name generated by a Wu-Tang Clan name generator. As someone who grew up with the likes of Weird Al Yankovic and Tenacious D, my first reaction was, organically, “Is it funny?” The answer, of course, was no, not really. Childish Gambino, in his early releases, was not “comedy rap”. There may have been a ‘jokey’ line here or there, but for the most part, it was straight-laced. This led to the first studio album that Gambino dropped, 2011’s Camp.
Camp, and much of the subsequent music that Glover released under the Gambino name, would become a polarizing force in the hip-hop scene. Perhaps the largest tastemaking presence in modern music, Pitchfork gave the debut album one of the lowest scores of anything it’s reviewed: a scathing, 1.6/10 review from Ian Cohen, citing, among many other grievances, a lack of self-awareness that contemporaries like Kendrick Lamar and Das Racist possessed. Glover’s next album, 2013’s Because The Internet, was part of a more wide-reaching project (including a full screenplay) and saw better treatment (but still not overly positive) from the online music giant: a 5.8/10 score from Craig Jenkins, citing occasional success at the mission, but still largely marked with convolution and lack of clarity.
These scores, however, never undermined what was becoming a massive following. In my experience, I found that many people who were Community fans also tended to adore the writer/actor’s musical releases, and the numbers and fan reaction reflected that, Pitchfork reviews be damned. I caught some of a live Gambino set at Bonnaroo in 2015, and the fan presence was enormous—possibly even larger than Kendrick Lamar’s headlining crowd—and at risk of admittedly missing something, it seemed cult-like; red lights shining from the stage with thousands singing along by heart.
Glover left the cast of Community near the end of its messy run, leading many to believe that he was focusing full-time on music. This was a disappointing revelation for me, because I’d always felt that he was, in a way, something we hadn’t truly had in a long time: an heir apparent to Eddie Murphy—an often hysterical, musically talented (don’t forget that even with Coming to America and Trading Places, perhaps Murphy’s greatest role—and closest Oscar chance—came in the 2006 musical Dreamgirls) man that can lead a studio comedy is a rare thing. We’ve only seen in the past decade or so a handful emerge as real stars.
Michael B. Jordan is shining talent right now, and he’s had a moment in comedy with That Awkward Moment, but it was shared with Zac Efron and Miles Teller, and that film underwhelmed both at the box office and with critics. And while Kevin Hart has established himself as an enormous player, Glover plays to a different crowd. We should not have to limit diverse leads in film. Seth Rogen and Zach Galifianakis, for example, have been successful headlining comedies for years, without competition. There’s room for more than one Eddie Murphy type; we should be able to embrace both Kevin Hart and Donald Glover, which was part of my disappointment when Glover seemed to be stepping away from acting.
But—and not many can say this—2016 has been a godsend of a year for Glover. A quiet first two thirds of the year made way for an enormous final four months: Atlanta, which Glover created, stars in, writes, and often directs, debuted to instantly become the consensus best new show on TV. Its surreal episodes, week-to-week unpredictability, and outstanding writing, characters, and performances will put it atop many best show lists at year’s end. (Glover himself described the show as “Twin Peaks with Rappers.” What more could you want?).
After all of this, Glover has again emerged as a star. He’s got an undisclosed role in next year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe offering, Spider-Man: Homecoming—putting a nice bow on a previous online campaign for him to play the wall-crawler—and, more importantly and on a higher-scale, he’s been hand-picked to play the younger version of iconic Star Wars mainstay Lando Calrissian in 2018’s yet-to-be-named Han Solo film.
In the past month, Glover released two singles, “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” off of the new record, “Awaken, My Love!”, that—for me, at least—forced me to think of him differently. When I heard “Me and Your Mama,” I was on board, but kept telling people it was “experimental,” not realizing that he had entirely done away with rapping for the time being, and decided instead to focus on this soul and funk sound. A closer examination of album details reveal writing credits for funk legend George Clinton, as well as Parliament-Funkadelic members Eddie Hazel (who passed away in 1992) and Fuzzy Haskins on the track “Riot”; It’s unclear the level of involvement there, but it is unambiguous that Gambino is eager to pay homage to the places from which his inspiration is drawn.
This made me revisit Glover’s discography to try to see what would be in store in for the present based on his musical past. Because the Internet has a number of experimental gems, including a feature from Chance the Rapper that I already liked, “I.The Nice Guys.” I next re-visited “II. Shadows,” which is a whole lot better than I had remembered. Produced by Thundercat—the soul/jazz bass player and producer, who later was involved with much of the production of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly—and accompanied by a backtrack that strongly evokes the Radiohead track “Weird Fishes/Apreggi,” this song melded R&B singing with expected rapping, and foreshadowed the transition into another direction musically.
Glover is at his best musically when he’s not trying to be someone or something else. “3005” is a good song, but it’s very much in the mold of something that Drake may have made. But “II. Shadows” hints (prior to the fantastic “Sober” on his 2014 EP Kaui) that singing could be the direction that Childish Gambino’s career would take. It at least began an upward trend, one that’s continuing with “Awaken, My Love!”. The new record takes a tour through the retro-R&B scene, evoking Parliament in places, other classics of the genre elsewhere, but all throughout it remains something that no one else is doing.
Old fans of the rapping Gambino or the Derrick Comedy sophomoric humor Donald may feel alienated from the new and more serious direction that he’s taken, but there’s a constant in his present-day work: originality. Trying things on television, with Atlanta, that others aren’t, or, as Childish Gambino, hitting the reset button with full force, moving at lightening speed in an adjacent direction that no one particularly saw coming. A few years ago I was disappointed that we weren’t getting the next Eddie Murphy. Now, I think I’m OK that we didn’t—if we had gotten the next Eddie Murphy, chances are strong that we wouldn’t have gotten the first Donald Glover.