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The Surprising, Very Public Evolution of Donald Glover

Or: How Childish Gambino Learned to Stop Being Childish and Become a Creative Genius

A photo illustration of Donald Glover Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Flow all day like a menstrual cycle,” raps Donald Glover, standing in the basement of an NYU dormitory, in the open doorway of what is apparently both a game room and a TV room. He is freestyling with a guy named Chaz Kangas, their rhymes nearly drowned out by an impromptu band—two dudes with electric guitars, a bassist, and a drummer playing overturned buckets—blasting the riff to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” over and over. It is September 2004; Donald and Chaz, fresh-faced NYU students wearing T-shirts advertising the skateboarder-friendly clothing company, Ezekiel, and the underground rap group KMD, respectively, had previously bonded in dorm hallways over their mutual love of Madvillain. It’s hard to hear what they’re rapping now, though this may be a small kindness, because one of Glover’s few audible bars is, “I make girls’ balls turn blue.”

It likely did not, in that room at that moment, feel like you were witnessing history, the birth of a star, a superhero’s origin story. But it sure feels that way when you watch it now.

Donald Glover is a rapper, a singer, a producer, an actor, a sketch comedian, a stand-up comedian, a screenwriter, a director, a TV star, a movie star, and a prestige showrunner. That’s in no particular order, in terms of either chronology or quality. The second season of Atlanta, his surrealist, Emmy-winning FX comedy and crowning achievement—for which he serves as creator, star, and occasional director—premieres Thursday night. Elsewhere, his meteoric rise and elite multitasking neurosis is chronicled at length this week in a stupendously prickly New Yorker profile, written by Tad Friend, that marvels at all the bridges Glover has built, and shivers in the face of his growing inclination to burn them all. Shots are fired at both former collaborators (Girls’ Lena Dunham, Community’s Chevy Chase) and current benefactors (FX CEO John Landgraf, The New Yorker itself); Glover radiates a sort of messianic exasperation throughout.

Is there anything you’re bad at? “To be honest, no. Probably just people. People don’t like to be studied, or bested.” He shrugged. “I’m fine with it. I don’t really like people that much. People accept me now because I have power, but they still think, Oh, he thinks he’s the golden flower of the black community, thinks he’s so different.” He laughed. “But I am, though! I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work—but I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it. I don’t know if there’s much time left.”

Glover’s quest to use his humanity to create a classic work did not begin with yelping inaudibly over a bootleg “Back in Black” in that NYU basement. But his time in the public eye began around then. His early output, in a daunting variety of mediums, is … a struggle, and remained so for an uncomfortably long time. But this is a function of both the era (the early 2000s, when inexperienced young polymaths were first taught to Put It All Online) and the man, an absurdly charismatic mega-talent from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who was willing to try anything immediately and able to master it eventually. It’s a gigantic, unwieldy body of work in which the lousy stuff might offer more insight than the increasingly great stuff. Not all of it is, strictly speaking, bearable. But all of it proved, somehow, to be necessary. After all, Jesus stumbled at least three times himself.

The 2008 mixtape Sick Boi thus serves as the de facto debut of Childish Gambino—an alias infamously provided by an online Wu-Tang name generator. Nasal does not begin to describe Glover’s flow; flow does not quite describe the results. “I was trying to play into something, but turn it on its head,” he told LAist in 2010. “Like, ‘Oh, I sound like you other rappers, but my voice is high, and it sorta sounds like my nose is clogged.’”

Mission accomplished. The beats are serviceable dorm-room laptop funk; improv-comedy oracle Upright Citizens Brigade gets a shout-out. Don’t listen to this. In terms of elucidating Glover’s influences and ambitions, it’s more illuminating (and way more pleasant) to return to all those “you other rappers” instead, especially the two pillars of 2008: Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Those records mixed lushness and rawness, transposed weirdness into greatness, and fused a wounded outsider mystique with imperial self-aggrandizement. Glover sought to do the same, and he was willing to put in the work, if his listeners were willing to put in the time.

Meanwhile, by this point, he was already practically alt-comedy royalty. In 2006, a 23-year-old Glover joined the writing staff of deified NBC sitcom 30 Rock, which is where both his ascent and, most likely, his exasperation began. Per The New Yorker:

He noted that his own skin color had surely influenced his career, beginning with his first job, as a writer on “30 Rock.” “I wondered, Am I being hired just because I’m black?” Tina Fey, the show’s creator and star, told me that the answer was in large part yes; she admired Glover’s talent but hired him because funds from NBC’s Diversity Initiative “made him free.”

In front of the camera, Glover also served as leading man for Derrick Comedy, an NYU-born sketch crew best known, unfortunately, for 2006’s “Bro Rape,” a colossally ill-advised eight-minute Dave Matthews Band joke that costars Bobby Moynihan and does indeed find Glover pantomiming rape within the first 30 seconds. Almost 11 million views on YouTube. What a time to have been alive. In 2009, Derrick Comedy made a full-length movie, an Encyclopedia Brown spoof called Mystery Team, which proved that Glover could carry anything, or was at least willing to die trying.

Three other 2009 milestones: Glover quit 30 Rock, joined the cast of the only slightly less deified NBC sitcom Community, and released his second official Childish Gambino mixtape, the likewise self-produced Poindexter. Maybe don’t listen to that one, either. The leap in quality is vast, but the necessary leaps to come are vaster still. “Extraordinary” kicks us off with a goofy, maximalist sample of the deathless Phil Collins–Philip Bailey ’80s jam “Easy Lover,” but Glover’s groaners drag it down, from “You didn’t see it coming / Reverse Miss Cleo” to “Coming hard like I’m filled with semen.”

Two other rappers from Childish Gambino’s generation loom large over his canon: Drake (the platonic ideal) and Big Sean (the cautionary tale). Drake gave Glover (and millions of other aspiring rappers) an irresistible blueprint: the sensitive outsider, the backpacker-turned-kingmaker, the celestial nerd alert. The emo paragon wracked by too many Feels to project the hardness hip-hop allegedly demanded, and destined to prove that softness was the hardest thing of all. Big Sean, conversely, proved to millions of aspiring rappers that cracking terrible jokes was, on its own, a viable career path. Childish Gambino’s career has vacillated between those poles for a decade now. The problem comes when he gets too close to either end.

Community made Glover TV-star famous as a sort of hambone heartthrob, and in 2010, he started cashing in with three mixtapes: I Am Just a Rapper, I Am Just a Rapper 2, and Culdesac, the last of which is the first Childish project I’d recommend listening to for fun. The conceit of both I Am Just a Rapper volumes is that he’s rhyming over blunt-force samples of the woozy, prismatic indie rock ubiquitous at the time: Neon Indian, Washed Out, Yeasayer, St. Vincent, Sleigh Bells. He turns “My Girls” (which hijacks the Animal Collective classic, natch) into a roll call of all the girls who ignored him in high school and all the girls chasing after him now: an extremely Drake undertaking. And “Bitch Look at Me Now,” driven by a sample of Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” swings wildly between thoughtfulness and Big Sean–style thoughtlessness, where the goodwill generated by this …

Picture me in sixth grade
Overweight, overbite
Got my fake Adidas on
Whiting out the fourth stripe

… is immediately wiped away by present-day boasts like this:

I’m wearing tight jeans
And nobody’s laughing
More pussy than recycled sanitary napkins

You can hardly blame the guy for feeling himself—summer 2010 also brought us the “Donald Glover should play Spider-Man” meme—but you feel every second listening to this guy feel himself. This is one way, alas, in which Childish Gambino was truly innovative: He collapsed the considerable emotional distance between Thank Me Later–era, “just happy to be here” Drake and Views-era, “operatic vengeance against every girl who ever rejected me” Drake. And that arc, whether it takes half a decade or half a year, is a cautionary tale all its own.

Culdesac, the last of his 2010 projects, is another huge step forward across the board, but production-wise especially, and for that you can thank a new collaborator: the composer Ludwig Göransson, whose first big TV gig was Community, and whose latest film score is, uh, Black Panther. This is a good guy to have around. Here they are doing an acoustic version of the R&B-lothario jam “Got This Money.”

The beats throughout Culdesac are uniformly lush and triumphant, the ideal fusion of Animal Collective’s feral twee-ness and Kid Cudi’s interior-monologue grandiosity. It’s the first Childish Gambino mixtape that doesn’t sound like a Macbook punching you in a bar, which cushions the blow of Glover’s ongoing jarring emotional fluctuations, where a breakup-related pills-and-Guinness suicidal fantasy like this …

Call ’em while I’m drifting off, tell her that I love her so
Parents crying harder ’cause I didn’t even leave a note
Saying that I’m selfish and I’m sorry that I left
But it hurts so much to wake up and I left you guys a check

… is soon undercut by …

I’m just about to pop, the industry just noticed it
People watchin’ me, I feel like Amber Rose’s tits

The mixtape’s thesis is that Glover is helping rap get smarter, more introspective, and less gangsta-centric: “Welcome to the culdesac / This is where the street ends.” Which is to say: “You want that hood shit, you better call Hova.” Glover is a much better rapper by this point, but aggrieved in a way that makes him slightly less endearing, his exasperation growing as he gets more famous and less trusting of the fans who made him famous: “Salad backstage, I just wanna eat alone / Crowd at my shows more mixed than Rashida Jones.” It’s enough to make you almost grateful for the truly stupid Big Sean–style one-liners, which is to say that I laughed out loud in a Panera Bread the first time I heard the line “I eat more pussy than Alf.” He’s probably not sorry, but I certainly am.

Meanwhile, he was attempting to conquer stand-up comedy, too.

This didn’t go quite as well. First, he did a perfectly lovely half hour for Comedy Central in 2010. (My official ranking of his impressions goes Chris Rock > Tracy Morgan > stereotypical Coldplay fan > Obama > Seal > Kanye West.) Next, he did a 2012 hour-long special, Weirdo, that is roughly a half hour too long. Out-of-context quotes include “I just realized Shaft juice sounds like semen,” “No girl wants a penis in the butt,” and “I’d much rather have AIDS than a baby” (a line Glover addressed in his New Yorker profile by saying, “Having AIDS is actually way cheaper than having a baby”). The capper is a long story about a kid taking a dump in a Home Depot showroom toilet. I have no doubt Glover could’ve perfected this form had he devoted himself to it for the next three to five years. Thankfully, though, he quickly found other realms to conquer, including his actual above-ground musical career.

This began in earnest with 2011’s EP, his first release for Glassnote Records, which featured his biggest hit to date, “Freaks and Geeks.” For those then unfamiliar with Community or the internet-rap scene, it sure seemed like this guy was coming in awfully hot: The groaners on this track alone range from “E.E. Cumming on her face / That’s poetry in motion” to “Are there Asian girls here? / Minority report” to “An elephant never forgets, so my dick remembers everything.” The most effective part of this video is the final, wordless 25 seconds, featuring a red-hoodied Glover in quasi-contemplative close-up as he radiates his usual charisma and for once doesn’t undercut it with his usual cocksmanship.

His official debut album, Camp, also came out in 2011, vying to top both the grandiose self-congratulation of Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne and the mellow self-flagellation of Drake’s Take Care. Göransson helps keep the sonic mood warm, bright, futuristic, and overwhelming, while Glover toggles between the agony of his über-nerd past and the ecstasy of his budding-superhero present. “This rap stuff is magic,” he muses. “I used to get called Oreo and faggot.” (The latter slur shows up a few times: “Spell it right,” he seethes elsewhere. “I got way more than two G’s.”)

There’s a jubilant sense of triumph to it all that too often curdles into sourness and more score-settling, the myriad disastrous one-liners (“Made the beat and murdered it / Casey Anthony”) done no favors by his newfound prominence. And a striking line like “My mom loved to text me Psalm verses / She don’t look at me like I’m the same person” is forced to share space with his complaints about MTV and Pitchfork. (Which savaged this particular record.) The thesis—Drake to its core, as usual—seems to be I didn’t belong then, and you don’t belong now. You’re certainly inclined to take his word for it. But what, exactly, are you supposed to do with it?

The celebrity era of Childish Gambino’s career has been steadier, if reliably incredibly pleased with itself. The 2012 mixtape Royalty was an absurdly star-studded affair: The first words you hear, spoken by Blake Griffin, are “This is Blake Griffin.” But it’s certainly an upgrade to hear Glover being gently out-rapped by the likes of Nipsey Hussle, Ghostface Killah, Schoolboy Q, and Chance the Rapper, as opposed to the random-NYU-classmate features of yore.

His second full-length album, 2013’s Because the Internet, was at the time, by a huge margin, the strangest and most ambitious thing he’d ever done, an art-rap monolith preceded by a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons and augmented by a 72-page screenplay you were supposed to read as the record played. It’s tough sledding, stingy with its hooks but likewise mercifully light on Big Sean moments, and the chorus of “Sweatpants” gets across in 12 words what used to take Glover entire mixtapes: “Don’t be mad because I’m doin’ me / Better than you doin’ you.” It got nominated for the Best Rap Album Grammy that year, and certainly would’ve been a preferable victor to, say, Iggy Azalea. (Eminem won.)

And here, at long last, is where the final push to the summit begins. Glover’s TV career had started to mutate as well: His much-discussed and vaguely insulting two-episode cameo on Girls, which inspired one of the gnarlier moments in this week’s New Yorker profile, came in 2013; his last episode of the by-then-and-thereafter-flailing Community aired in early 2014. Two smaller Childish Gambino projects—the grimier, Southern-rap-indebted mixtape STN MTN, and the breezy, winsomely inconsequential R&B EP Kauai—dropped one day apart in fall 2014. But Glover’s three best works of art were yet to come. The first one, obviously, was his performance in 2015’s Magic Mike XXL.

With apologies to his work in The Martian, this is his best movie role to date, less for the thesis-delivering scene where he convincingly describes male strippers as “healers” than for his introductory freestyle rap for a very lucky boutique-strip-club patron named Caroline, which is not easily available online, though you can, and ought to, enjoy the audio on SoundCloud:

This is my single favorite 60 seconds of Glover’s rap career: calm, goofy, sweetly empathetic, and sexy in a way you can never achieve bragging about your elephant dick. It’s truly astounding, how many spotty mixtapes and disastrous one-liners it redeems.

The second peak was 2016’s Grammy-feted Awaken, My Love!, the latest (but reportedly not the last) Childish Gambino record, a hard pivot toward vintage George Clinton P-Funk as thrilling as it was nearly unprecedented. At first listen it was so anomalous as to feel like a Halloween costume, as immersive and fictional-seeming as any TV or movie or sketch-comedy role Glover has ever played. A bass-driven ’70s-incarnate strut like “Have Some Love” is explicitly designed to not feel like a Childish Gambino song, or really a human product of the 21st century, at all. And the eerie ballad “Redbone” is close to a masterpiece: This in-the-studio video with Ludwig Göransson makes abundantly clear who’s playing the vast majority of the instruments, but Glover brings a killer sense of atmosphere, a lethal falsetto, and a mixture of total dread and absolute cool that makes this easily the best track he’s ever been a part of.

The last and biggest and potentially longest-lasting peak, of course, is Atlanta itself, which is at the very least the weirdest great show on television. This is in large part due to the huge chasm between the relentless passivity of Glover’s character, Earnest “Earn” Marks—who seems perpetually startled by sunlight, even in the dead of night—and his casual overarching dominance as a showrunner, as a deep thinker, as an increasingly skeptical iconoclast hell-bent on pushing the show in ever-weirder and more confrontational directions.

We have watched Glover work incredibly hard for more than a decade now, frantically adding hyphens to his job description, daunted by nothing, and not quite mastering anything. As a personality, he has always been easy to love; his work itself, less so. One theory about his long-term arc—and Childish Gambino’s arc in particular—is that even great artists struggle for years before producing truly Great Art, and somebody as ambitious and charismatic and internet-savvy as Donald Glover would naturally conclude that every step of that struggle was worth documenting, and worth making available for free download. It’s the Malcolm Gladwell “10,000 hours” thing, except in this case, we’ve gone through those 10,000 hours right alongside him.

Glover tells an anecdote in the New Yorker piece about being 10 years old, and wanting to be “good” at P.E. class, which he realized would require that he be “good” at basketball, which required him to spend a day shooting baskets for six hours straight. “The next day, I was good enough that you wouldn’t notice I was bad,” Glover concludes. “And I realized my superpower.” Much of the Childish Gambino catalog feels like watching that kid shoot baskets, like a war of attrition between quantity and quality. But his past few years of output has played out like a slow-motion superhero origin story, and one that has made this long, often interminable ride totally worth it. For him, certainly. And maybe even for us.