As we await news on the status of his impending retirement, we take a look back at the eclectic catalogue of Donald Glover's musical alter-ego.
The term "renaissance man" gets thrown around a lot in cultural conversations, often hastily tacked on to anyone that’ll cross the floor into another medium regardless of their role in the project’s inception. But where some musicians like to dabble with film, writing or vice-versa, Donald Glover has immersed himself in each of these realms to such an extent that these pursuits are entirely independent of one another. When Common or Ice Cube are in a motion picture, the poster is adorned with their chosen rap moniker. When Donald Glover pens a script, directs and stars in Emmy-winning TV show Atlanta or even inherits the role of beloved intergalactic scoundrel Lando Calrissian, he does so by his government name.
This is a move that allows him to leave Childish Gambino— a rap name that he infamously cribbed from the online Wu Tang name generator— on the sidelines, the disconnect between the two is so pronounced that 2018 saw Cardi B notoriously proclaim in all seriousness that “it’s amazing how Donald Glover and Childish Gambino look so much alike. I think they secretly the same person! Soo dope!”
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Hailed as an incisive and important creative mind that sees his art multi-dimensional, recent projects such as Atlanta, the Rihanna-assisted Amazon film Guava Island and his incendiary state of the union address “This Is America” has placed him among the most well-respected figures in modern pop culture.
But what’s just as fascinating as his output is how the dialogue that surrounds him has changed in tone. Over the course of the decade, Glover has undergone a unique transformation from critical cannon-fodder to a venerated artist. Thought of as a comedian making ill-advised stabs at the music world, there was a real atmosphere of vitriol towards “Troy from Community” for having the audacity to try his hand at rap. Prone to puerile humour in his early projects such as Culdesac and the indie music-interpolating I Am Just A Rapper series, his words may have been aiming to shock or gross-out listeners but they were just as a meticulously constructed as the more profound ones he delivers today.
The approach of a new decade and the overhaul in public opinion on Glover’s music makes it a fine time to rank his major projects in order of greatness. As usual, we’ll be forgoing his many standalone mixtapes— including the phenomenal, RZA-featuring Royalty and his debut collaboration with Ludwig Gorranson on Culdesac— in order to focus on those Glassnote Records-distributed projects that are pivotal to his legacy.
Sadly, the official soundtrack to Glover’s gripping tale of rural rebellion in Gauva Island hasn’t been formally released despite fan demand. Otherwise, infectious tracks such as “Die With You” and “Saturday” would undoubtedly garner it a favourable position on the list.
Now, let’s delve into the musically diverse and highly conceptual catalogue of the “mastermind” himself.
4. Kauai/STN MTN
KAUI / STN MTN album cover via Glassnote
Alright, technically this may not be a major project in the traditional sense of the word. But in the lore of Chilidish Gambino, Kauai/STN MTN not only represents a turning point in Bino’s career but was conceived as two parts of one overall creative vision.
"It’s a Gangsta Grillz mixtape that goes into an EP," Glover told Complex ahead of 2014. "The Gangsta Grillz mixtape is a dream, and the dream ends when I wake up in Kauai. And they go into each other; it’s one complete project. You can download the mixtape and you can go buy the EP. The money from the EP goes to help keeping Kauai clean."
But where one half is fixated on his attempts to find serenity on a Hawaiian island, the other is intrinsically linked to his multisided relationship with his hometown in a way that echoes his now beloved TV series. Split across platforms, the EP/mixtape rollout may have been unorthodox but all of its contents are no less worthy of your examination.
Naturally overseen by DJ Drama, STN MTN— a stylized take on the Atlanta district that he grew up in— begins with Glover depicting his own idyllic version of the city before the familiar thump of the “Southern Hospitality” instrumental kicks in. Spanning reworked versions of tracks from Usher, Future, Timbaland, Magoo and even the underground hit of Maceo’s “Nextel Chirp” as well as the original trap rhythms of “Fucks Given” and “Candler Road,” STN MTN is the sound of Glover at his most untethered by the emotional baggage and hang-ups that have been at the forefront of many projects, blurring the lines between his reality and an alternate timeline where he’d been bestowed the co-sign of the streets. Above all else, this side of the project would inform any naysayer that had written him off as a novelty that when it comes to crunch time, Gambino can rap.
Then, as we move from the inner-city bravado of the ATL to the tranquillity of the Garden Isle, Glover ushers back towards more the thoughtful, naval-gazing terrain that he’s always had an affinity for. Jaden Smith, the host of spoken word passages on “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)” and “Last Night In Kauai” confirmed what we already knew about Glover’s narrative abilities and, in many ways, seemed like a precursor to the tale of humble life that takes on extraordinary significance in Guava Island.
Hampered by the same sense of self-satisfaction and overindulgence that had been to the detriment of some of his earlier work— see STN MTN’s “Ass Shots Remix” for a prime example— it may not be the finest entry in his catalogue, but this hybrid of an EP and Mixtape did plenty to showcase what Glover is capable of when he takes an idea and runs with it.
Camp album cover via Glassnote
Remember the untampered dismissiveness towards Glover’s music that was alluded to earlier? Well, look no further than the following review of CAMP from Ian Cohen of Pitchfork. Granting the record a 1.6 score amid throwing some pejorative comparisons to 808’s & Heartbreak that have aged poorly, the writer claimed that “the album maintains some of the overweening humor of Donald Glover's sitcom "Community", but Glover's exaggerated, cartoonish flow and overblown pop-rap production are enough to make Camp one of the most uniquely unlikable rap records of this year (and most others).”
Laden with vivid beats and emotive strings, there is certainly no mistaking what kind of mass appeal Gambino was aiming for when it came to this, his official debut album from 2011. However, to suggest that there’s something caricatured or otherwise insincere about Camp is to grossly misrepresent its intentions. Much like venturing away from home and leaving your parents behind is a formative experience that’s tinged with both optimism and vulnerability, Glover’s Camp is the sound of him coming of age in the rap game and learning where he fit in. Or, more specifically, where he didn’t.
In the same vein as his spiritual forefather of Kanye West, Glover sees himself as marooned off the coast of cultural acceptance. Unable to align himself with the sensibilities of those he shared his teenage years with, Glover’s lyrics are steeped in the experience of someone that’s had to fight other’s perceptions of who and what he should be for his whole life. Alongside articulating his cultural dysphoria as being the “only black kid” at a Sufjan Stevens concert on the glistening “Firefly,” Glover provides no shortage of compelling commentary on his journey throughout the project. Amid rallying against the hipsters on “Backpackers,” he also provided a narrative for other young black misfits to extract strength from on "Hold You Down."
Far from devoid of bum-notes, each time he unveils the heart of his music on tracks such as the xylophone-accented ode to young love on “Kids” is quickly juxtaposed by moments where Gambino’s old proclivity for cheap gags rears its head. Even on the explosive “Bonfire,” there are lines that’d likely make Donald wince today while “L.E.S” and “You See Me” would’ve had a less socially attuned artist on the chopping block for apparent “cancellation” in a modern context.
One album and countless mixtapes in, it seemed like these erratic leaps from earnest to eye-roll-inducing might be a spectre that he’d never overcome. Thankfully, the antidote to these inconsistencies was just two years away.
2. Because The Internet
Because the Internet album cover via Glassnote
When the Hiro Murai-directed Clapping For The Wrong Reasons surfaced in August 2013, it was met with a largely quizzical response. Non-linear and filled with Lynchian abstractions, it served as the prelude to Childish Gambino’s sophomore studio album Because The Internet but has taken on a greater significance ever since.
When the record and its accompanying 76-page screenplay emerged that December, the coalescence between what we were seeing on-screen and its spiritual soundtrack marked the beginning of Glover approaching his music with the scope of an auteur. In an interview with Billboard from 2013, Glover unknowingly outlined the approach that would take him into the next level and out of the shadow of what the press had deemed to be his past missteps. "I wanted to be with real people. We had just finished touring Australia and I didn't want to go back home, so instead I went somewhere that was totally different from what I'm used to. I didn't want to make another album, really– I wanted to create a world."
Expressing a desire to feel human connection in what he saw as a cold and sterile environment, Because The Internet isn’t indebted to the tangible feelings that he hoped to experience but the stunted online existence that we all partake in. Adopting a curatorial role that takes us on a tour through the web’s most depraved corners through to some of the seldom-seen pockets of solace where it serves a benevolent purpose, BTI is set around the plight of the fictional son of Rick Ross. On the musical end, Glover enlists an all-star amalgam of guests to bring BTI to life with the most focus that he’d displayed at this juncture. Frenetically paced and flitting from rollicking trap to hypnotic jazz on tracks such as “Worldstar,” the album sees Glover treat genre or niche with the same open-endedness that most millennials would when constructing a playlist. Whether embodying “The Worst Guys” with Chano, crafting lo-fi R&B splendour with Jhene Aiko on “Pink Toes” or investigating the lack of societally-enforced dress code that’s applied to the wealthy on “Sweatpants,” the record features some of the most dynamic production of his career and is far less tied to the juvenile, hashtag rap antics of previous projects.
Equally effective when trading in immediacy on “3005” or when he’s taking a more circular route on squalling, atmospheric work such as “Zealots Of Stockholm [Free Information],” Because The Internet marks the moment where his projects finally accomplished the cohesion that would transform him into a cultural icon. As expansive and dizzying as the digital landscape that informed its creation, Glover created a universe that was brought to life through a variety of mediums only to strip it all back to basics for his magnum opus.
1. Awaken! My Love
Awaken! My Love album cover via Glassnote
Throughout musical history, the hallmark of any great, era-defining artist has always been the ability to confound your audience and leave their previous perception of you in the dust. In line with this well-established need to kill the past before re-emerging anew, Donald Glover’s 2016 record is one that took his previous 10 years of musical growth and assimilated it with an entirely new set of influences.
On his previous records, we’d heard Gambino have no shortage of flirtations with R&B. Similarly, tracks ranging from BTI’s “Crawl,” “Urn” and “Exit” to Camp’s “Outside” and “That Power” divulged his understanding of atmospherics and setting an ambiance. Now, complete with a shamanic presence that ran through its musicality and cover art, Awaken! My Love saw Glover deliver a project that was befitting of his paradigm-shifting potential as a creative mind.
“Dude I'm so fucked up right now,” wrote The Roots’ Questlove in a lengthy Instagram post about the project. “I can't even form the proper hyperbolic sentence to explain to D'Angelo why I woke him up at 4am to listen to this.” Encapsulating the range of emotions that we all experienced after pressing play for the first time, Quest added, “I thought I was getting some fresh millennial 2016 hip hop shit and I got sucker punched.”
From the ambient opening salvo of “Me And Your Mama” through to the uproarious exorcism that it soon becomes, the record’s opening track is the kind of song that can still leave jaws ajar even after all this time. Not only because of its own merits, but the riveting, encyclopaedic tour through funk and soul that it sets the scene for. Taking influence from George Clinton, Sly Stone and Prince at his most unhinged, Glover’s use of genres from the past on AWL isn’t meaningless revivalism. In an interview with XXL, he revealed why the invigorating sounds of yesteryear were used in order to express the need for a contemporary uprising. “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," Gambino says. "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.”
A work of musical dissidence that dared his detractors to try and talk its merits down, Gambino has since conceded that for all that the album has became a tool for catharsis among its listeners, this was far from the case for him. "It’s funny, I think people hear the album and, to be completely honest, it wasn’t a lot of fun," he told Triple J, "it was actually really hard. I was going through a lot, and I also think in America we’re going through a lot right now, with everything that’s going on."
Amid the sumptuous grooves of “Redbone” and “Have Some Love”, Glover takes the sound of Funkadelic’s landmark Maggot Brain project to deliver poetic social commentary on “Boogieman” and “Riot.” On more meditative moments, Bino taps into the spirit of Paisley Park on “Terrified” before Songs In The Key Of Life-era Stevie Wonder gets a look in during “Baby Boy.”
A lot more than just the sum of its influences, Awaken! My Love is the sound of artistic potential fulfilled and harbours a timelessness that will no doubt place it above the rest of his work as the years trickle by. No matter whether the title was intended as a reference to Glover finding his artistic voice or galvanizing America into action, the real awakening came in the shape of the music world finally appreciating him to the same extent that he’s always celebrated it.
What’s your favourite Childish Gambino record? Let us know in the comments below.