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(Getty Images/FX/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/FX/Ringer illustration)

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You Have to Take Donald Glover Seriously Now

With his new album, ‘Awaken, My Love!,’ the ‘Atlanta’ creator makes his case as the most exciting young polymath working in pop culture

Sometime in 2018, probably in the spring, he’ll be in Cloud City playing Lando Calrissian, greasing the skids for a young Han Solo in a Star Wars anthology film. But back in 2013 — before the sensational first season of his show Atlanta, before the Pharos app, before the three-day, one-act festival at Joshua Tree for his newest musical offering (a sharp left into deep ’70s funk territory) — Donald Glover was nearing the end of the promo tour for his sophomore album, Because the Internet. He unbunched his floral print Bermuda shorts and stepped onto the stage for an interview on The Arsenio Hall Show.

He was there as Childish Gambino, wearing shearling house slippers and the same linen tee he’d worn for a slew of other interviews during that round of press. It was strange attire for November, but being comfortable seemed to be the most important thing to him. He sat cross-legged on the couch across from Arsenio and waited for the last few whoops and yelps of excited audience members — most of whom probably recognized him as Troy Barnes, the affable, neighborly nitwit he played on Community — to die down.

The assumption of the audience, relayed by the host and shared by a lot of people at the time, was that Glover had quit Community to get rapping out of his system. But Glover, fresh out of energy for the kind of bromidal explanations that put nosy people at ease, said he’d just wanted to do something else for a change. And moreover, quitting TV — cutting off a creative limb, so to speak — to focus solely on rap was a ridiculous idea. "Rappers don’t want to be rappers," he joked, not really joking at all. "They’re usually artists who want to do a bunch of stuff. I don’t think any rapper wants to be just a rapper."

Pharrell made chairs with fake human feet as the legs. Chamillionaire parlayed his love of cars into an ownership stake in a customization company and eventually became a tech investor. Kanye West wanted to design hotels and be left alone — with money and resources, of course — to make other Dope Shit, whatever form Dope Shit might take. André 3000 has done all sorts of things (remember Revolver? Remember Benjamin Bixby?) Rick Ross … owns a bunch of Wingstops.

Music is an art form, but it’s also a means to the end. The end is freedom — creative freedom, financial freedom, the freedom to do nothing. Glover, currently the most exciting young polymath working in pop culture, had a point back then. And don’t be fooled: He also had a plan.

Nobody really took Childish Gambino seriously at first, and no one really had any reason to.

Glover was a comedian, a comedy writer, and a comic actor. At 23, he was plucked out of UCB’s Derrick Comedy troupe by Tina Fey to write some of Tracy Morgan’s best Tracy Jordan–isms on 30 Rock. It was always gonna be hard to digest new material from the guy that had a hand in "Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report" and not be listening for the rimshot.

He certainly didn’t come too far out of that pocket at the beginning of his rap career. Early on, his music was informed and formed by his comedic timing and sensibility — everything was tinged with a noncommittal, detached, just joshing feel. His early musical releases included the Sick Boi (2008) and I Am Just a Rapper (2010) mixtapes, which dumped out awkward punch lines over Sleigh Bells production — "Pass this mixtape to a friend like Chandler" — and had Glover rapping with all the finesse of a message-board-commenting virgin on a sugar high. The Gambino handle came as a result of querying "Donald" and "Glover" in a Wu-Tang Name Generator. He ran with it.

But no one is ever really great at something right away. Glover progressed, release after release, from a nerd who raps to a rapper who happened to be a nerd. His work adapted a mawkish uncoolness around 2009, when he linked up with Community composer Ludwig Göransson for the Culdesac project. By the time EP dropped later that year, he had codified the uncool, and it was good.

But somewhere between then and his full-length debut album, 2011’s Camp, that easy subversion morphed into willful self-indulgence in service of positioning himself as Not Your Barbershop’s Favorite — the Yeezys, Jeezys, and Weezys of the world — and the work suffered. You might recall Ian Cohen letting the chopper cry and giving the album a 1.6 out of a possible 10 on Pitchfork. (At least that was 1.6 points better than Jet fared.) Cohen wrote:

Because the Venn diagram of kids who might’ve consumed Gambino’s music up to that point and kids who read Pitchfork were close to a perfect circle, it seemed that everything Glover did thereafter was met with rolling eyes. Childish Gambino was not cool to stan for. The music was self-referential but lacked self-awareness, and therefore, it sucked.

Camp was bad. Or at least, I didn’t like it. (Even then, only musically; conceptually, and because I was a nerdy, gangly kid who was made to feel he wasn’t black black like the others, I thought it was pretty great.) Because the Internet, which arrived two years later, dealt with the poor habits we learn in our formative years that become calcified online, including the conflation of opinion and fact and the act of pretending you’re confident.

But on Because the Internet, Glover was hyper self-aware. He was in his head or just out of reach most of the time; he seemed tired, or bored, or high, but not altogether disinterested. He wondered aloud in interviews about race, life, and death. He posted pictures to Instagram of handwritten notes on hotel stationery about everyday hardships: wrestling with whether or not anything has meaning, finding someone — anyone — with whom he could relate, being afraid people will find out what he masturbates to, etc. Also, in an interview with Noisey, he said the most profound and true thing. Like, the most profound and true thing ever. I could not believe how profound and true this was:

At 30, and after years of trying to find his place in the world, finally, he’d begun to reconcile his nature and set about carving out his own. Incidentally, his music had never — ever, ever — been better. Rather than kicking and punching and fighting the water — a surefire way to sink — he relaxed enough to swim and stay afloat. This was evident during his 2013 Sway in the Morning radio freestyle that people yelled about on the internet for weeks afterward. He stopped halfway through his delivery to have a conversation about how honesty is power, then picked it right back up on the downbeat. Where Camp felt like a man using his one chance to get out all he needed to say, this freestyle saw him with the confidence and discipline to move at his own pace. And suddenly it was like, Holy shit. Is Childish Gambino cool now?

For some, the answer was still an emphatic no. But after the "Pound Cake" freestyle, nobody really questioned whether he could rap. He was still prone to occasional room-clearing duds (from his 2014 Gangsta Grillz STN MTN mixtape: "Gassed up and you finished last / I’m crying nigga, that’s tear gas" — gag me with a spoon, man). But that didn’t really matter. Gambino had already become a better singer than he was a rapper. And a better artist than he was at either.

Glover obviously had more talents and ideas than could be contained in a single genre or serviced with any one medium. The best song on Because the Internet had almost no rapping. There was an accompanying three-act, 73-page screenplay replete with short vignettes released on becausetheinter.net. It was about a boy born on the internet whose father was Rick Ross and who threw house parties to feel less alone. It filled in the narrative gaps of the album. There was 2014’s Kauai, a seven-track EP containing exclusively pop songs tacked onto the end of STN MTN. He also covered Tamia. And it was beautiful.

With his Gambino musical persona, appearances in 2015’s Magic Mike XXL and The Martian, plus writing, directing, and starring the lead role in a semi-autobiographical series on FX, Glover has darted back and forth between hyphenates like you might scroll the "Suggested for You" queue on Netflix. Which might hint that he’s a jack of plenty trades, but a master of none. But you move from medium to medium not necessarily because you’ve mastered the previous one, but because you’ve gone as far with as you feel you possibly could have. Or, like Glover told Arsenio Hall, simply because you want to do something else for awhile.

You can do that when you consistently make good shit. Or when you sell 992,000 album equivalents, get over a billion streams, and your TV show gets showered with effusive praise and renewed for a second season.

As Kanye once said, "the longer your ’gevity is, the more confidence you build." Taking in all of Glover’s works, I’d go so far as to say his ’gevity is long, and that he’s built up a sizable amount of confidence. Pharrell can make chairs on the strength of his brand, Kanye can put out increasingly marginal clothing designs on the strength of his name, but because Glover has been so successful at trying so many different things, the risk assessment essentially reads: Most everything else he’s done up to this point has worked, so this has to. Nobody is as good as Donald Glover is. Neither Kanye nor Pharrell has been as prolific in as many fields. As such, Glover is free to put out Awaken, My Love!, an updated-for-2016 version of Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young, under the same Childish Gambino moniker pulled from the same name generator that christened me "Gorky’s Zygotic Glove Puppet." Partly because funk is intentionally subversive (George Clinton had purple dreads before Lil Uzi, never forget that), but also because he’s established a basis of trust.

There’s this moment in the Atlanta pilot that seems tangential but is actual the skeleton key to understanding the show. Earn (Glover) wakes up during a bus ride to a living, nose-gazing embodiment of the disdain and patronization we — meaning young black people — usually get for bothering people with our struggles. This living embodiment is wearing a bow tie. Earn makes himself vulnerable to this man, wondering if some people are just born to lose; the man suggests that Earn "Let the path push [him] like a broken branch in a river’s current." Which is an ornate way of saying the usual things black parents tell their children: Get in line, get a job that pays a paycheck, change it from the inside if you can. But just as quickly as Bow Tie Man shows up and pushes his Nutella sandwich on Earn, he disappears, like a dream forgotten immediately after waking up.

The scene was a continuation of Glover’s penchant for gathering the unfortunate realities of everyday life and making sense of them with sparsely constructed surreality. In other words, making things — racism, transphobia, homophobia, disenfranchisement, you name it — understandable and even relatable by ramping up the contrast of the big picture then folding in the edges. As someone pushed to the margins within the margins, Glover built a world for people that were like-minded. Or at least, similarly underrepresented. Writer Trey Smith found that through line — the black experience of being both consumed and the consumer, coping with the feeling of not belonging anywhere — in the handful of videos spanning Because the Internet and Kauai. "Loneliness," Smith wrote, "is another large aspect of being a young black male in America. There is the constant feeling of forced solitude, whether literal or mental."

On Awaken’s "Zombies," which is equal parts Rose Stone on "Don’t Call Me" and Funkadelic’s "We Hurt Too," Glover ceiling gazes as the room melts around him. "All I see is zombies, feeding all around us / All they eat are people, and you won’t survive." It’s there; that feeling of being stuck between blurred expectation and irreconcilable contradiction, the frustration of repeatedly being shown that you, as a black person, can’t have anything — not even the things or spaces you create for yourself. Kari Faux’s voice traipses in on the bridge, driving the point home: "We’re eating you for profit, there is no way to stop it."

Like Atlanta, it’s a salve. Donald Glover scratches the itch that’s too far down our backs to reach without someone else’s help. By creating, by living, by failing until he succeeded, and, as cheesy as it sounds, by being an example. Awaken, My Love! is out today, and odds have it that in the fullness of time, we — I mean, all of us that have ears and listen to stuff, some of whom panned the previous two albums — will come to agree that it’s pretty great.

Either way, it’s inescapable: We have to take Donald Glover seriously now.

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