Donald Glover started out as a stand-up and sketch comic before nabbing a writing gig on 30 Rock. This led to a starring role on adored sitcom, Community, and the creation of his own comedy-drama, Atlanta. In recent years, his work as Childish Gambino has started to take primacy.
Gambino co-headlined this year’s Coachella, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He started uploading music as far back as 2008 and his early releases copped a critical flogging. Whether or not he was paying attention, he displayed eagerness to grow with the times and his output’s continually improved.
There hasn’t been much consistency as far as his stylistic identity’s concerned, however. He’s tried on the guise of a lady killing, rhyme-spitting hardman and a Drake-aping pop-hopper. He had a go at being a psych-funk crooner before popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist with a combination of political urgency and untouchable cool.
Here’s a look at the twists and turns of his back catalogue.
1. Backpackers, Camp (2011)
Gambino’s early records can loosely be labelled comedy rap. Though, his 2011 studio debut, Camp, is as cringe-worthy as it is funny. You could argue Glover was adopting a larger than life, grotesque rap character on songs like ‘Backpackers’, but that doesn’t redeem lines like, “I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect / Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech.”
The body text grapples with being perceived as too white for the OG hip hop crowd and too black for the indie kids. It’s an attempt at finding his place in hip hop in defiance of backpackers – i.e. people who’ll cut him down for not making “real” hip hop.
2. You See Me, Camp (2011)
Another example of Camp’s slippery slide into faux pas, ‘You See Me’ finds Glover fetishising Asian women. A lot of the lyrics are blatantly tongue in cheek, like this passage from the verse one: “I’m amazing, I’m a phenom / I’m assassin, I’ma kill y’all / I’ma say ma ma sa, ma ma ma coo sa / And this shit’s closed now ’cause I ball too hard / And I’m coming on her face, have I gone too far?”
It’s not exactly ground-breaking lyricism, but there’s at least a glimmer of self-awareness. Aside from revealing Gambino’s clumsy growing pains, the song’s worth revisiting for its final verse – an assertion of superiority that displays his genuine chops as a rapper.
3. The worst guys (ft. Chance the Rapper), Because the internet (2013)
Because the internet arrived less than two years after Camp, but you could already sense Glover was keen to put his debut behind him. His second full-length features guest spots by Azealia Banks, Jhené Aiko, Thundercat, and Chance the Rapper on the coasting ‘the worst guys’. Chance wasn’t yet a huge star and his contribution is limited to the echoing Gambino on the, “All she needed was some,” hook. But the mood of the song is in tune with Chance’s gladdening signature.
4. 3005, Because the internet (2013)
Gambino and regular producer Ludwig Göransson brought in Chicago beatmaker Stefan Ponce to enhance the earworm quality of Because the internet’s lead single, ‘3005’. The radio friendly number contains some sincere musing on being abandoned by loved ones and Gambino’s brewing insecurity that “nobody out here’s got it figured out / So therefore I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending.”
5. Sober, Kauai (2014)
As you might expect, there’s often a multi-media aspect to Glover’s releases. ‘Sober’, from 2014’s Kauai EP, is an anodyne R&B number with a filthy, Prince-inspired breakdown. It’s nice, but unchallenging. The video, however, features Glover desperately vying for the attention of an innocent woman waiting for her meal in an otherwise empty diner. He gives it all he’s got on the dancefloor and she gradually shows amusement, but leaves as soon as her food arrives – a more satisfying ending than the formulaic head-over-heels response.
6. Me and Your Mama, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016)
After half a dozen years torn between emulating Kanye, Drake or Tyler, Glover came up with a better idea – P-Funk worship with a dash of Prince. 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” was a sharp left turn few could have predicted, but it was Gambino’s most organic sounding effort to date. The album’s theatrical opening number ‘Me and Your Mama’ is a desperate love song. It introduces us to the falsetto and dripping wet guitar that plays a major role in the coming events. The stereo panning of bass and guitar is a nice touch, adding to the vintage feel.
7. Have Some Love, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016)
“Awaken, My Love!” doesn’t just evoke shades of George Clinton’s oeuvre – the song ‘Riot’ contains a sample of Funkadelic’s ‘Good to Your Earhole’. But the most blatant rip is ‘Have Some Love’, which strongly recalls Maggot Brain’s ‘Can You Get To That’. Should this offend us? Perhaps, but ‘Have Some Love’ is also a heck of a lot of fun. It’s led by an uplifting group vocal instructing that we “Have a word for your brother / Have some time for one another / Really love one another / It’s so hard to find.”
8. Redbone, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016)
Before the chart topping, Grammy winning glory of ‘This Is America’, ‘Redbone’ was Gambino’s signature song. And nowhere was it more successful than in Australia, placing fifth in the Hottest 100 of 2016. It sustains the P.Funk vibes, specifically referencing Bootsy Collins’ ‘I’d Rather Be With You’.
The lyrics draw attention to the threat of relationship infidelity, but the “stay woke” hook could be read as a commentary on Gambino’s artistic evolution – saying goodbye to the tactlessness of his earlier persona.
9. This Is America, Single (2018)
After years of latching onto movements and engaging in stylistic cosplay, Gambino set the internet on fire with ‘This Is America’. It was his time to call the shots and reconfigure the zeitgeist. The song is coupled with a stark, satirical video, but it stands up just fine on its own. Gambino heavily references trap music and employs the backing vocals of Atlanta associate, Young Thug. The song – which looks at issues of race and gun violence – hit number one in the US charts and won four Grammys.
10. Feels Like Summer, Summer Pack (2018)
Any attempts at creating ‘This Is America’ part two would’ve been futile and Glover switched tone and aesthetic on the two song follow-up release, Summer Pack. ‘Feels Like Summer’ bears closer resemblance to Gambino’s Coachella co-headliners Tame Impala than his previous single. It’s light on its feet and awash with tripped out synths, but the political consciousness remains as Glover’s lyrics address overpopulation, climate change and species extinction.
In an interview with the New Yorker Glover said, “I don’t know if humanity is worth it, or if we’re going to make it.” In light of this, ‘Feels Like Summer’ could be viewed as a statement of existential concern or a reflection of Glover’s wistful ambivalence.
Childish Gambino returns to Australia this July for Splendour In The Grass and a handful of sideshows. See details here.