The Endless Evolution of Donald Glover
Troy Barnes. mcDJ. Earn Marks. Childish Gambino. The man behind all of these characters and monikers is Donald Glover, and it’s near impossible to avoid his influence these days. Born and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia just outside of Atlanta, the young Glover was characterized by constant isolation and disapproval from his peers, attributed to his black skin and “white” interests. Now, Glover is an industry icon. His success spans across music, comedy, and film; his artistry is truly boundless.
The beginning of Glover’s career can be traced back to 2005, when he released his first mixtape as a disc jockey under the name mcDJ. Glover released over one hundred tracks across several mixtapes and EPs as mcDJ, mostly consisting of experimental, electro-infused funky beats with some occasional subpar “rapping” — tacky oneliners that would make Lil Wayne cringe. Glover was an RA at New York University at the time, which is where he met fellow members of Derrick Comedy, forming one of the original
YouTube sketch comedy groups. His raunchy writing and exaggerated expressions were noticed by Tina Fey, and in 2006 he was invited to write for the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, starring Fey herself, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, and other comedic geniuses.
Never one to be pigeonholed, Glover was far from satisfied with this taste of success. In 2008, mcDJ was replaced by Childish Gambino, a name he got from an online Wu- Tang name generator. His debut Sick Boi is more significant symbolically than sonically — the vocals are nasally and high-pitched, the lyrics are corny, and the beats are unpolished and jarring. A glimmer of hope can be seen in Glover’s clever word play and obscure references, which are expanded upon on Poindexter, Glover’s second mixtape released a year later. While still a mediocre project, Poindexter is more cohesive and features stronger production. More than anything, these mixtapes are a testament to Glover’s creative passion and determination.
A month after the August 2009 culminating release of Derrick Comedy’s feature-length film, Mystery Team, Glover was cast in the new NBC sitcom Community. On the new series, created by Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty, Glover played
Never one to be pigeonholed, Glover was far from satisfied with this taste of success.
Troy Barnes, a former high school star quarterback with a hidden childish side. This exposure, paired with a 2010 set on Comedy Central Presents, caused a tweet from Glover with the hashtag “donald4spiderman” to rapidly evolve into an inspiring movement to cast him as the first black Spiderman. Although no audition came, even with the support of Marvel creator Stan Lee, Glover later voiced Miles Morales in the animated Ultimate Spider-Man series and had a cameo in the 2017 movie Spider-Man: Homecoming.
2010 was a major step forward for Glover’s popularity in entertainment, but his musical progression was perhaps just as notable. Glover dropped three mixtapes in 2010: I AM JUST A RAPPER, I AM JUST A RAPPER 2, and Culdesac. The two IAJAR tapes featured Glover spitting over a variety of indie song instrumentals, including tracks by Grizzy Bear, Sleigh Bells, and Animal Collective. The mixing and production is lackluster, and the lyrics primarily consist of cheesy punchlines, but Glover’s confidence and creativity shine through. It’s on Culdesac, however, when Childish Gambino no longer seems like a mere side hustle for a rising comic actor, but instead an entirely separate identity. Done with hiding behind distracting production and a faux-aggressive delivery, Glover’s introspective and honest bars show that he’s serious about rapping. His singing, softer and smoother, foreshadows his unbelievable growth as a vocalist.
Glover followed up Culdesac with EP (yes, an EP titled EP) in early 2011, showing major improvements in his production and songwriting. His first hit “Freaks and Geeks” delivers raw, witty, rapid-fire bars with no time for a hook, and the music video has accrued over 25 million views. With Glover’s continued brilliance on Community and a burgeoning music career, the demand was high for the limitless talent. The same year, he hosted the mtvU Woodie Awards at South by Southwest, toured 23 cities as a rapper and comic, performed stand-up and a Gambino set at Bonnaroo Music Festival, starred in Weirdo, a Comedy Central stand-up special, and released his debut studio album, Camp.
Gambino’s music may have turned a few heads up to this point, but Camp put Childish Gambino on the map. Camp tells the story of Glover’s isolating childhood, troubled mind, and evolving lifestyle. Themes of Glover being too white and too black at the same time surface frequently, aching to be the voice of an underrepresented generation of nerdy, outcasted black kids. The flow, production, and vocals all take significant leaps from his earlier mixtapes, especially on the hit “Bonfire,” but his questionable claims of making “real hip-hop” and inconsistency in his sincerity led to mixed reviews. Notably, Pitchfork gave the album a 1.6 out of 10, ripping Glover apart for his lack of self-awareness and “cartoonish flow.” The hip-hop community was a far way from embracing Gambino.
Glover responded to critics with Royalty in the summer of 2012. At 18 tracks and an hour in length, it was his longest project to date, but it’s the length of the feature list that turned heads. Schoolboy Q, RZA, Ghostface Killah, Beck, Danny Brown, and Chance the Rapper all make appearances, not to mention an intro by NBA star Blake Griffin and an outro verse from none other than Tina Fey. But Royalty is much more than just a flex. Gone is the confusing mix of humor and depression that took away from his earlier projects. Instead, Glover comes out firing on all cylinders with polished and controlled flows, punching deliveries, melodic hooks, and inspiring themes of black excellence. Royalty never received much mainstream attention, but hip-hop heads and Glover stans were starting to align — Childish Gambino could no longer be brushed off as just another attempt of an actor turned rapper.
Avoiding complacency at all costs, Glover left Community in 2013 five episodes into the fifth and penultimate season, citing his need to explore his full potential and have creative freedom over future endeavors.
Progressing his music career wasn’t his sole aspiration; just a month after he announced he was leaving Community, Glover shared news that he would be producing, writing, and starring in Atlanta, the dramatic comedy about an up-and-coming rapper (not played by Glover) in the city’s bustling rap scene.
Before 2013 had ended, Glover further validated his Community departure with the release of his sophomore album Because The Internet. His most comprehensive project yet, the album was released with a corresponding 72-page screenplay, continuing his narrative from Camp. Sprinkling in pop culture references alongside deep, self-questioning lyrics, BTI is impossible to put in a box — exactly as Glover intended. The project’s boundless scope, abundant digital themes, and experimental nature are clear products of the internet, a statement that could also be applied to Glover’s career. An unhinged, explorative, authentic portrayal of Glover’s personal struggles and successes condensed into an hour of music, BTI is the culmination of his previously episodic and isolated strengths as an artist.
Following a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album and a top spot on the US Rap charts, Glover went quiet for the rest of the year, wiping all of his social media accounts with no explanation. He did, however, surprise fans with STN MTN / Kauai, a conceptual mixtape/EP combination. STN MTN is full of bangers and heavy production, paying homage to the Atlanta emcees that came before him with samples of Ludacris, OutKast, and other southern rap icons. Kauai, on the other hand, is full of pop-infused beats and dreamy melodies. Perfect for a day at the beach, Kauai marks a definitive pivot in the sound of Gambino. The project was even released with just “Gambino” listed as the artist — no more “Childish.” The joint project flew under the radar other than the gold certified single “Sober,” but started rumors of Glover ditching the Childish Gambino persona and pivoting musically.
Childish Gambino could no longer be brushed off as just another attempt of an actor turned rapper.
Fans of Glover’s music would have to wait until the end of 2016 to confirm these rumors, but fans of Glover’s acting were satisfied in the meantime. Glover starred in three films in 2015: The Lazarus Effect, Magic Mike XXL, and The Martian. None of these roles were groundbreaking, but further verified Glover’s multi-industry success and high demand.
In September of 2016, the long-awaited debut of Atlanta aired to widespread acclaim. Atlanta is simultaneously hilarious and heavy, an effortless blend of dry humor, absurd yet authentic characters, and biting commentary on American society. Fueled by Glover’s anecdotes, the series artfully conveys the southern black experience, exposing pervasive, subtle racism, and the fraudulent rap music industry. With just ten episodes, Atlanta won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, the latter of which Glover is the first African-American to win.
BTI is the culmination of Glover’s previously episodic and isolated strengths as a musician.
To cap off an already incredible year, Glover released his third and most recent studio album “Awaken, My Love!” in December of 2016. As some predicted, the old Childish Gambino was nowhere to be found, replaced with a soulful R&B performer and a sound straight from the ‘70s. The entire album is a bold display of psychedelic instrumentals and funky vocals, and single “Redbone” is Glover’s biggest hit to date, reaching number 12 on the US charts and winning the Grammy for Best Traditional R&B performance. AML also received Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Urban Contemporary Album. Glover has yet to tour the album, but did perform it at his PHAROS festival in Joshua Tree, California, creating a spiritual and intimate mini-universe in a massive dome in the middle of the desert.
Just when Glover appeared to find his home in hip-hop, he packed up and left without a word. This has been Glover’s formula from day one: as soon as he gets comfortable, he drops everything and is on to the next venture, forever confounding critics and fans alike. Signs are pointing toward Glover releasing his final Gambino album this year, meaning his recently announced arena tour could be his last. Glover is a fan of endings, and while diehard fans like myself hate to say goodbye, his limitless innovation makes it impossible to stay sad.
As soon as he gets comfortable, he drops everything and is on to the next.
• Miles Kirsch (Bioengineering)