Appreciation Post: Donald Glover/Childish Gambino

(Edit: I wanted to start this post off with a content warning. Since Donald Glover’s rap albums are discussed in this post, some lyrics which use strong language are quoted below. However, I would not necessarily use this kind of language – people of my background shouldn’t – in my own life outside of carefully quoting pieces of media which use it.)

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Gambino singing “Redbone” in the encore

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Donald Glover, whose musical stage name is Childisho Gambino, give a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden. I’ve always said that although I don’t listen to rap music much, Gambino has always been my favorite rapper. But as time goes on, Gambino’s music has become more and more diversified; after two rap albums, his third was an ambitious psychedelic R&B/funk project. I could also talk about how acclaimed and popular his song/video “This is America” was, but it was watched 12 million times in its first 24 hours and is approaching 400 million views total – so statistically speaking, you’ve probably already seen it.

And that’s not all he does. He also does a killer stand-up comedy set, and is a prolific actor, having appeared in the critically-acclaimed (and network-forsaken) Community as well as recent appearances in Atlanta (which he produces) and Solo: A Star Wars Story. 

I see all of these performances and achievements and I start to think about the fact that we’re looking at a once-in-a-generation entertainer. So, without further ado, let me

Community

Community is probably my favorite sitcom – even though it is such a genre-defying show that I struggle to call it a sitcom. Not to mention, it helped to launch (and relaunch) various careers, including Donald Glover’s. Glover’s performance on Community has both hilarity and heart. Across five seasons (four of which are wonderful), his character grows from a boy to a man, and has some wonderfully touching moments as his friendship with Danny Pudi’s Abed develops and thrives. But let’s be honest, his time on Community is best known for the things he did which made audiences crack up.

Like cry:

Or rap (with Betty White):

Or freak out:

Or ride an ATV:

Community is an amazing show that had an absolutely stellar cast, most of which have gone onto bigger and better things (but we won’t talk about who hasn’t). The show has always been a bit of an under-appreciated diamond in the rough, but I think that in 20-30 years, we’ll look back at Community as an early performance in a string of amazing performances (both acting and musical) for Donald Glover.

The Personal Nature of Camp and Because the Internet

I do kind of hate when media outlets analyze a musician’s lyrics and try to figure out how it connects to their personal lives. Usually it’s iHeartRadio talking about Drake’s personal life with no real impact on the music. And as far as all that is concerned, I’m not usually interested. What appeals to me instead is when the artist will discuss their lives in the art. There are various songs in the first few albums that talk about the experience of just… being him. And that’s very personal.

All the Shine” from Gambino’s first album, Camp, is a rap ballad about wanting to just be himself while rising to success, and why he can’t do that – other rappers don’t respect him, and his family is starting to treat him different. “My mom loved to text me psalm verses, but now, she don’t look at me like I’m the same person, I used to be the sweet one, but things change.” He asks “I’m not trying to come hard, I’m trying to come me, that’s why all these old songs I’d release for free, what’s the point of rapping if you can’t be yourself?” Which I think really summarizes most of the Camp album.

Also from his first album is “That Power,” which for its first three minutes is just a regular rap song, but ends with a four-minute spoken-word-story over a soft beat. Gambino talks about the first time his heart was broken, and it’s immensely sad.

He’s said before that “3005” is not a love song, which everyone tends to assume because the chorus sounds like it would be: “No matter what you say or what you do / when I’m alone I’d rather be with you.” But other parts of the song are heartbreakingly sad:

No matter where all of my friends go,

Emily, Fam and Lorenzo, all of them people my kinfolk

At least I think so

I can’t tell

‘Cause when their checks clear they’re not here

Because they don’t care

There’s a lot going on in “3005,” and this sad meditation on how individual success affects friendships is one thing that really sticks out to me.

If you meet anyone who scoffs at rap, saying it’s crass or dirty, or only about drugs or violence or anything like that, maybe quote some Gambino for them.

Punny Lyrics

Gambino’s lyrics are also loaded with clever word-play that can really make you chuckle

Glover 1

From “3005”:

Got no patience, cause I’m not a doctor

Girl why is you lying? Girl why you Mufasa?

From “Bonfire” (forgive it for being a bit crass):

I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA

From “Not Going Back”:

My lifestyle simple: live easy and Bruce Willis

I’m the boss, Michael Scott, y’all bitches is just Phyllis

Community - Season 5

Forgive this dirty one from “Heartbeat”:

She ain’t a killer but she’ll fuckin’ blow your head off

And from “That Power” is a line so subtle I didn’t notice it for years. I listened to the song often, and always heard the lyrics as this:

Yeah, they starin’ at me jealous cause I do shows bigger

But your looks don’t help like an old gold digger

Uncool, but lyrically I’m a stone cold killer

So it’s 400 blows to these true faux niggas

And while “true faux” can also be read as “true foe,” it’s actually written in the lyrics as “Truffaut,” as in Francois Truffaut, who directed a movie called The 400 Blows. No wonder that in the next line Gambino says: “Now that’s the line of the century.”

This is America and the Glover/Gambino Renaissance

As I said in the intro, “This is America” had one of the most striking and memorable music videos in the past few years, and it certainly makes sense that it became so successful. It’s not just rap, it’s social commentary-infused art, coming at an exceptionally timely moment in America’s gun debate.

Glover 2.jpg

As time goes on, it’s starting to become more and more apparent that Glover likes to push boundaries as an artist. He left Community to work on Atlanta, and he’s slowly moved away from rap to doing other kinds of music. One thing that struck me about seeing his concert was just how little music he did from his early albums, and instead focus on songs like “Feels Like Summer” and “Redbone.”

In the documentary I Am Heath Ledger, it was said that Heath Ledger was never interested in a typical role, but instead always craved a challenge, which is why he took roles like Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There, and most famously, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, in which he declined to play Batman, but immediately jumped when offered the role of the Joker. And I think that’s something similar we see in Glover – he craves a challenge, and he craves change.

And I know I didn’t touch on Glover’s stand-up comedy, but there are the final ten minutes of his amazing special, Weirdo, which remains one of my favorite moments in stand-up comedy.

So I want to hear from you; what is your favorite Donald Glover performance? What’s your favorite Gambino song?

3 thoughts on “Appreciation Post: Donald Glover/Childish Gambino

    1. Yes! If it’s not apparent by my not mentioning it, I haven’t watched Atlanta yet either. And it disappoints me that the world hasn’t recognized Danny Pudi’s talent either – it feels like every other former cast member of Community has a Netflix show

      Liked by 1 person

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