I must admit, I’ve become a Childish Gambino convert.
My comedic-minded friends loved Culdesac, his 2010 mixtape I had been skeptical to download. Any non-rap fan making a rap recommendation to me was suspect. If they liked it, chances are it wouldn’t appeal to me.
Early the following year, Gambino, otherwise known as “Community” actor Donald Glover, commanded attention with “Freaks and Geeks,” a straight verse over strings, keys, and chants that announced his sonic intentions. The video was a single take shot, Gambino jumping around a warehouse in a red hoodie. I checked it out, was mildly impressed, but ultimately couldn’t get past lines like “An elephant never forgets, so my dick remembers everything.” I found a lot of his punchlines at the time to be the forced humor of a comedian turned rapper; corny, artificial, unfunny.
Intrigued though, I caught a performance when he came to Orlando, where I was living at the time. I could not have been more underwhelmed. I was expecting spoken, humorous bits between songs and got nothing. Gambino performed with a band, running through his sing-songy nerdist emo catalog with trepidation. As a song ended, the stage lights would cut out and only turn back on when the next song started. It wasn’t a stand-up show, sure, but with zero crowd interaction or off the cuff remarks, I thought Glover as a live performer was uncomfortable and ineffective.
Gambino’s next project was a five track EP featuring “Freaks and Geeks.” It was just short enough to be easily digestible, and tracks like “My Shine” and “Not Going Back,” proved his skills were moving in the right direction. I was still apprehensive, though, to fully jump on the Bino bandwagon. I checked out Camp, the album he dropped in late 2011, and Royalty, his feature-heavy mixtape from the following summer. They showcased his dexterity and ambition, but suffered from being lopsided. Like a shooting guard looking for his stroke, Gambino was putting up shots in volume, not always hitting his mark.
Those last two projects had me halfway in. The electric-grounded “Heartbeat” was his first bonafide ‘single’ since “Freaks and Geeks.” Calling upon Danny Brown, Ab-Soul, Beck, and Haim for Royalty, allowed Glover to prove his burgeoning industry acceptance and versatility. “Unnecessary” is both mean and hilarious, a gritty track dedicated to the frivolous demands and lifestyle of a star. “Bathroom DVR” is a far funnier joke than any dick reference.
In the year plus since Royalty though, Glover has become somewhat enigmatic. He appeared on the second season of “Girls.” Then word came out this summer that he was taking a reduced role on “Community,” a show plagued by network jerk-around and low ratings. Vulture reported in July that Glover would only appear in five of the show’s 13 episodes, allowing him to “focus more on his music.”
A month passed and not much happened. What was he up to? What would that extra focus lead to? It started with “Centipede” in July, a 6-minute track that kicks off with humming, dogs barking, and not much said in the first minute. By 1:36 point, the song is in full swing, a “Yup” vocal sample adding a layer of texture to the Gambino-brand of rapped introspection.
In August we were clued in a bit more by way of the short film “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons.” The 25-minute clip is mostly strange, at times abstract, but an effective portrayal of Glover’s feeling of alienation; living in a Los Angeles house so big that he doesn’t even know all of his roommates. If his disappearance was him searching for something, “Clapping” led us to believe that he hadn’t found it yet.
It wasn’t overtly clear though. We were still without any on the record commentary from Glover about his head space or direction or any clearing of the record at all. Then, on Oct. 14, he posted a series of messages on Instagram, six notes penned on Marriott stationary. He expressed his fears and wrote that for the first time he feels helpless. “I didn’t leave ‘Community’ to rap. I don’t wanna rap. I wanted to be on my own,” the beginning of one note read.
A few days later, he spoke to People about posts, saying he was just venting. “That night, we had a show, and then after, I had this moment of feeling like, ‘What’s the point? Why am I even here? I just wanted to write down my feelings. I definitely was expressing myself.”
Here’s the thing though, about his mysteriousness and anxiety-ridden missives and speculative career path; the music he’s releasing is on a new level of consistency and quality.
His follow up to “Centipede” didn’t hit the web until Oct. 8. “Yaphet Kotto (freestyle)” sounded like a newly awaken artist. The instrumental soared with a stretched, sung note, Gambino beginning his verse with a “Worst rapper” refrain that showed his typical self-awareness, but in a new light. He sounded like a rapper at home, comfortable on the beat, switching up flows and inserting melodies in a much more nimble fashion.
The page really turned for me this week though, with Monday’s release of “3005” and yesterday’s clip of Gambino freestyling over “Pound Cake” on the “Sway in the Morning” show. Some notes on the latter: it looks as if dude is really freestyling, a rarity in today’s scared-to-be-exposed hip hop landscape. And with that, the free is dope. Not jaw on the floor, crash Twitter dope, but damn he’s got skills dope. He broke the verse with a brief meditation on money then jumped back in, effortlessly. He even cracks a smile when he mispronounces a word. He lets the beat play out so that he can have a take on Jay Z’s memorable ‘cake’ wordplay. Except Bino is sifting for humor, referencing Zebra Cakes of all things. It’s charming because he’s multi-talented and not afraid to be honest.
And “3005” is a fully fleshed out hit unlike any that he’s released. He sings, he raps in chopped flows, his punchlines, though still a bit face-palm-y are dropped subtly. Then there’s the beat, which he co-produced, a pumped-up electric bounce that contrasts perfectly against his lyrics; unsure, searching, confident in delivery but not in content.
This whole progression has led Gambino into a truly promising musical space, standing beside emotionally-driven artists like Drake and Kid Cudi. Vulnerability has emerged as this lane in hip hop, mostly in the wake of 808s and Heartbreak, that allows artists to connect with fans and unload ultra raw and personal expression. That Glover is this conflicted character, seemingly torn between acting and rapping, being honest and profitable, makes him such an engrossing artist. (He’s also refereed to himself as the ‘son of Kanye’ which applies musically and in a broader context.)
Remember, too, that he started as a writer for “30 Rock.” Sure, some rappers are born great, but it’s a skill that is fairly easy to understand and master over time. I’m not sure that great rappers aren’t just great wordsmiths, which Glover has proven he is in other fields.
In an interview released today with Power 105’s the Breakfast Club, Glover laughs off the idea that he ‘left’ acting or that he ‘wants’ to be a rapper. He’s not interested in labels, only being himself and being accepted. It’s a smart stance, from what is clearly an incredibly smart individual. He can channel his talent however he wants, and he wants to be as big as he can. “I think everyone is kind of going through this, I just have the loudest voice,” he told the Breakfast Club of personal struggle. Well I’m now listening intently, monitoring every release until Because the Internet drops on Dec. 10. Forgive me doubting, but it was the growth he’s shown that’s made me a fan.