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Breaking down the genius of Donald Glover

atl_pilot_0722_365dDonald Glover is better than you think he is. If you’re like most people, you either slept on him but finally saw the light or you still think he’s a weird kid who tries to rap but doesn’t do it that well. You’re wrong and that’s your bad, but I’m here to help. Yeah, his Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator-provided rap moniker Childish Gambino initially gave me pause. But once you get past that, Glover is nothing short of genius. A few months after someone first told me about him, he released I Am Just A Rapper and I quickly became a fan.

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These days you probably know Donald Glover from his FX show Atlanta. Before it premiered we heard it had an all Black writers room and we could smell the authenticity in the air. With its first season wrapped, and each episode inexplicably better than the last, Atlanta is a certified hit. Donald created, stars in, and writes for Atlanta. And while the critical acclaim is dope, he’s not new to this. He starred in Community and famously wrote on 30 Rock. But there is just so much more to this guy and I wanted to write this because I believe great genius deserves translating.

Donald Glover writes, acts, raps, sings, creates, and trolls. And he does all of this, masterfully. But let’s get to why you’re here, the area where Donald is underappreciated the most: his music career. Knowing Donald, this new album could easily be just sounds of alien frequencies from distant galaxies but on the off chance it’s him singing and rapping, I wanna prepare you.

Please, please, please: If you’ve clicked this and decided it was worth your time, listen to the songs. Words are just not enough to convey Donald’s dopeness. This isn’t meant to be a quick read. It’s a journey. Get your headphones or something. Relax yourself. Please settle down. Although I do have an opinion on the ranking of his best to least best work, let’s go chronologically.

I Can Hear Your Feet – I Am Just A Rapper

One of the first things that attracted me to Donald’s music was his use of indie songs. He raps about his affinity for not just using the beat but instead rapping over the actual song on “The Real (Infinity Guitars)” from the mixtape sequel I Am Just A Rapper 2, “I don’t want no instrumentals. Leave the vocals on my shit, like the song giving me head”. Gross. Or just typical Donald, Mr. Talk About His Dick Again. But leaving the vocals on Yeasayer’s “Sunrise” was definitely a good decision. Donald over indie is just magic.

Favorite Line: 

Nerdy girls everywhere. They scope me out like “There he is.” My whole crew’s sick – I’m hanging out with Jerry’s Kids.

Culdesac was his next project. Released later in 2010, it’s my favorite Donald Glover mixtape. It came out the summer before my Junior year of college when I was back home in Virginia, hating my job at Lowe’s, and feeling every bit of frustration that comes from being a tortured genius. I played it every morning at 5am driving into work and it got me through that hellish summer. From the “Do Ya Like” Adele flip that got Donald massive attention, to his openness about his depression and suicidal thoughts on “I’m Alright”, the whole project is beautiful and relatable. With 15 tracks it’s not possible to cover every brilliant moment but let’s just run through a couple of my faves.

I Be On That – Culdesac

Why is he doing this to this beat? How did we get here? This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Favorite Line: 

“I be steady getting paper – call a nigga Dunder Mifflin. And these rappers cannot see me, I’m the only one with vision.”

Donald Glover has the range. “Got This Money” and “So Fly” flex his “I rap and sing for real, for real” muscle. “Got This Money” is one of my favorite examples of Donald shifting between rapping and singing on the same song without sounding forced or limited. And “So Fly” sounds like a combination of Jesus and Fergie. My mans killed both these.

Got This Money – Culdesac 

So Fly – Culdesac

Nigga can’t you tell? That my sample of Adele, was so hot I got these hood niggas blowing up my cell? 

-Freaks and Geeks (2011)

Do Ya Like – Culdesac

I already told you Glover’s sample game is to be applauded. “Do Ya Like” is a Childish Gambino CLASSIC. It has such quintessentially Donald lines like

Yes I’m drinking whiskey, baby I am gone tonight. 

NBC is not the only thing I’m coming on tonight!

Gross! Why the fuck I say these things?

It isn’t over, haven’t heard the chubby lady sing.

Who else can say shit like that, and mean it? And with Adele on the hook. Oh boy.

I’m Alright – Culdesac

Okay. This has been fun so far but we gotta take a turn. “I’m Alright” is the ultimate Tortured Black Genius Anthem™. And as a self-identified Tortured Black Genius™  I’ve said before how much I identify with this song. It’s a song for those of us whose greatest fear is mediocrity.

Favorite Line: 

Sleep when I’m dead. These voices in my head, got me waking up at 4 just so I can write instead. My friends come and ask me if it’s worth it. I tell them that it better be – I did this shit on purpose.

“Fuck It All” – Culdesac 

Staying on this dark and dangerous path of depression, “Fuck It All” is a song not only about depression but explicitly about suicide. Donald raps about downing a bunch of tylenol as his hypothetical chosen method of suicide, calling his ex-girlfriend while the life slips out of him, and imagining his parents crying because he didn’t even leave a goodbye note.

“I’m selfish and I’m sorry that I’m left. But it hurts so much to wake up and I left you guys a check. Cause I ain’t fuckin’ happy. You don’t know shit about me.”

Yikes. Depressing, I know. But artists like Donald, Kid Cudi, Vince Staples, and others rapping explicitly about their mental health makes it easier for others to do so and quite literally saves lives. We appreciate it.

Favorite Line:

Now I got em lined up in the lobby door.

It makes me wonder what this rapping shit’s a hobby for.

Oh that’s right. Because I’m gifted in another field…

and another field…

and another field!”

Rapping. Singing. Stand up. Writing. Acting. Where is the lie? And what young Black creative doesn’t resonate with this feeling of being the best but not getting recognized as the best, and being a jack of all trades and master of all?

After Culdesac we got an EP that features what is definitely one of Gambino’s top 10 songs – “Freaks and Geeks”.

Running the game – fuck am I saying?
Running the EARTH.
Give me a month.
Told all you niggas I’m in it it to win it cause having an Emmy just wasn’t enough.

So now we get to his first official studio album: Camp. This is where things get… interesting. Camp may have famously received an abysmal 1.6 rating on something called pitchfork, but way more importantly, it begins what is the strangest, coolest, trolliest thing I’ve come across in rap. The last song on Camp, “That Power”, begins this ridiculously in depth thing that the internet has dubbed The World and in this world, Donald Glover is no longer Childish Gambino, he’s The Boy. Who is The Boy? My nigga. Strap in for this.

That Power – Camp

The rap portion of “That Power” concludes at the 3 minute mark, and that might be the last time we heard from Childish Gambino. The Boy takes over and tells us about his time at camp.  He’s 13 and riding the bus back home. He gets off the bus and that is where Donald Glover’s second studio album Because The Internet picks up.  As you may or may not know, Donald Glover wrote a 72-page screenplay that was released alongside Because The Internet. But when I say “alongside” it’s slightly more complicated: Donald Glover may or may not be living out the role of The Boy in real life and the album is just a soundtrack.

Screenplay page 1:

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A few months before Because The Internet, Donald Glover released his Hiro Murai-directed short film Clapping For The Wrong Reasons. The short film includes such dopeness as Chance The Rapper playing Connect Four with Trinidad James and Donald Glover picking lemons with Topanga. The title is also a reference to Catcher In The Rye, which makes total sense given how much the book’s main character Holden Caulfield hates everything, much like The Boy.

To recap so far: Camp has The Boy getting off the bus. Because The Internet screenplay picks up from there. Clapping For The Wrong Reasons shows a day in the life of The Boy, 15 years later. And Because The Internet the album, is the soundtrack to all of this.

Screenplay page 5:

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The Boy has a very distinct look. In scenes from the screenplay this is how he dresses: white t-shirt, brown pants, and vape in hand.

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So far that’s some pretty intricate storytelling but here’s the wtf moment: it kinda seems like Donald has been doing interviews and press as The Boy, without telling anyone. Same outfit here, here, and here. During his now famous “Pound Cake” freestyle with Sway, you can’t tell me that’s not The Boy. He’s literally holding the vape, lmao. Crying emoji. Because the internet. Why is he such a troll?

On the final track of Because The Internet, called “Life: The Biggest Troll [Andrew Aurenheimer]” he raps “Whether you’re trolling or controlling, just a reminder: You think you get it. You don’t. It’s that Andrew Aurenheimer.” Andrew Aurenheimer is a racist troll. So there’s that.

I don’t know what to expect with Gambino’s newest album but I’m super hype to find out what genius Donald Glover gifts us with next.

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