As Donald Glover embarks on what is sure to be yet another very successful year for himself, following two years highlighted by Grammy nominations, Golden Globe wins and fantastic music, Rohan Parmar looks back at what the man once named ‘Most likely to write for The Simpsons’ has done throughout his career.
Back in the early 2000’s, Glover was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts, an institution that has long been a launch pad for creatives including Jake Johnson of New Girl fame and, of course, Spike Lee. Glover quickly made his mark and even at this early stage was known not only for music, but also acting roles and writing. Together with D.C Pierson and other NYU alumni he started the Derrick Comedy group who were early pioneers for using YouTube as a medium. Although the videos garnered a lot of hype and Derrick Comedy was, arguably, a stepping stone for Glover, the sketches were often pretty racy including homophobic skits and racial stererotyping that, these days, Glover would probably rather disassociate himself from..
Glover had to pay his way whilst at NYU and did so by getting a job as resident advisor for Tisch, responsible for helping students enjoy their experience. Despite being busy with classes, writing and acting sketches, and beginning to hone his musical skills, it appears he was good at the job. In a series of videos made with fellow student and collaborator, Chaz Kangas, he talks about having unparalleled popularity as an advisor. He became known as “the guy who raps”, and recorded some early freestyles including this one with Kangas.
Glover obviously had, and has, an incredibly strong work ethic. As his popularity has increased, he’s also developed awareness of the need to control his image. Although it’s easy to say that his skills as a rapper were already polished by the time he graduated, it’s harder to demonstrate. In his final years at NYU he recorded a mixtape “The Younger I Get.” It’s rumoured that there is only one copy left in existence, belonging to Chaz Kangaz. Gambino reportedly did not want it to be distributed on the internet due to the personal content including real names/events. It has recently been erased from his discography and no traces have shown up anywhere. It’s said to have been influenced by the sounds coming out of Stones Throw at that time, particularly MF Doom’s classic, Madvillainy,but I guess we’ll never know for sure.. It’s quite impressive that it hasn’t shown up anywhere on the internet in subsequent years, especially as and it’s something people, including myself, would dearly love to hear. Imagine – Childish Gambino on a Madlib-like beat, crazy right?
Following his graduation in 2006 he became a writer for 30 Rock. He was with the show for three years during which time it won 4 Writers Guilds of America awards. That would be achievement enough but in the same period, Derrick Comedy released a feature (Mystery Team), he was cast in the hit TV show Community, and his first (if we discount the missing one) mixtape, Sick Boi. Not only a work ethic, then, but also ambition and success. The mixtape was followed up by Poindexter and it saw him carry the gimmick on both of him rapping sounding like he was full of cold with the name Bam-B, (although it was still released under the Childish Gambino moniker that he got from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator). The nasally, comedic style he had went quite unnoticed in the music world but it was conforming and breaking the mould at the same time. At a time where the autotune voices of Lil Wayne, Kanye West and T-Pain were running rampant over the music world, he was doing it for the underground and almost parodying that but making great music. Of course it might have been overlooked by the public due to his blossoming career on screen as Community was obtaining rave reviews from critics, and he himself had a stand up special on Comedy Central.
The beginning of the decade was when his music really began to shine through though, as he began to break the stigmas and conventions surrounding Hip Hop as a genre. The fact he was able to put out 3 mixtapes in 2010, 2 of which featured him rapping exclusively over a plethora of indie-influenced or just straight up indie instrumentals from the likes of Yeasayer and Washed Out. Over the course of the 3 releases he was changing up his style from his previous two mixtapes, dropping the full of cold sound, and began to take it more serious and it’s something he even references on Different “Yes I’m back with a whole new attitude”
Debut album Camp was released at the back end of 2011 and received mixed reviews including at 1.6 from Pitchfork. It was here that was a key moment not only in Childish Gambino’s career, but Donald Glover’s too. The album itself was far from bad and did spawn hits like Heartbeat and Bonfire but it just wasn’t received as well as people thought it would be, and it seems like it marked the end of an era in the Childish Gambino saga. It was after this he became much more reserved as an artist, subsequent releases became less comedic and more serious. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, consequently it has irked some fans who long for the older incarnation back.
Whilst working on Community, he met Ludwig Göransson – the show’s composer – who became a long-time collaborator. It would be remiss of me to not mention how crucial a role in Childish Gambino’s career Ludwig has played, helping him produce and write every project since Culdesac. The duo have a unique approach to music and work in a way that compliments each other’s strengths well hence why the collaborations have kept up for the better part of a decade.
The next musical release was the mixtape Royalty in 2012. It was a big step away from his prior releases and it hosted a variety of names on the tracklist, from Wu-Tang’s RZA and Ghostface Killah to people he’d taken on tour like Chance the Rapper and Danny Brown. It was with this tape that he’d taken the sound surrounding ATL at the time and made into more than mumble trap rap and into higher regarded lyrical content. At a time when Raider Klan, A$AP Mob and TDE were taking over the game both underground and mainstream, Childish was able to maintain an original sound despite taking from the musical happenings around him. The mixtape was heralded one of the best of the year and people began to take him more seriously, the features with established names as opposed to other NYU students kept popping up; Leona Lewis, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Cyhi the Prince just to name few. Alongside this, he was still keeping up appearances on Community, had a new stand up special called Weirdo, and starred in feature-length film The To-Do List.
2013 was the year that had Childish Gambino because a household name, after keeping quiet music wise since Royalty’s release, upon announcing a new album he released the lead 3005 to much mainstream attention. Because The Internet was released in December of that year to, once more, mixed reviews. Spin granted it 2/10, whilst other publications like XXL and AllMusic gave it 4/5, despite this it’s still his best album commercially and he received two Grammy nominations as well, one for Best Rap Album and one for Best Rap Performance – 3005. The album was accompanied by a screenplay of the same name, and it served as a narrative for it. His creative brilliance and artistic direction was again on show here, as it’s one of the more unique and fascinating ways to market your album and it was this, alongside his previous works in all fields that helped him secure a spot on the illustrious Forbes 30 under 30 list.
Just a few weeks preceding the release, Glover had posted a series of notes on his instagram. The notes, carried a depressive undertone and it was a list of things he was afraid of whether it best the past, present or future. “I’m afraid I’ll never grow out of bro rape” for example, a reference to Derrick Comedy’s sketches. It saw widespread concern for him and people began to reach out over social media in order to help him in any way possible, he later claimed it was just something that he needed to get off his chest. These posts helped shatter the myth that men can’t have issues like this, and for such a public figure to address these problems he received media attention and also adoration from news outlets and fans alike.
Tours and more promotion for the album followed in 2014 with FX also ordering a pilot for his TV show Atlanta, but whilst a new show was starting for Glover his run at Community was coming to an end. He wanted to concentrate more on his other ventures and only starred in 5 of the 13 episodes that season 5 had to offer. He dropped a mixtape STN MTN/Kauai which didn’t receive too much attention due to little official singles being put out from it. Sober was the stand out and exhibited his singing credentials again, which were sometimes doubted due to him not doing it extensively throughout a song.
If 2013 was the year that Childish Gambino became a household name, it was 2015 that made Donald Glover one. Starring in box office smash The Martian and also Magic Mike XXL his publicity and stock rose to new found heights and he was becoming someone more and more in demand. Throughout the year he held off being on any features and his musical output was little, although he was featured on festival line ups all around the world including Wireless and Listen Out.
His stock sky rocketed even more in 2016, with the release of his show Atlanta being arguably the crowning jewel on all his achievements. Being the; executive producer, writer, director as well as the creator of the show, he also starred in it and it was well received by critics and fans alike. The show received two Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice award alongside a host of other awards too. This was his big break in terms of being able to show off he can create and craft something other than music, a show devised by him and his brother paid off in a big way and has already gone down as one of the best shows in recent memory. The work put in helped to give Glover a role in the upcoming Han Solo movie, the role of Simba in The Lion King remake as well as writing and producing credits on the upcoming Deadpool miniseries.
“Awaken, My Love!” was released just a few weeks after the show was done and saw him take his music in a different direction completely, with no rapping on the album at all. The album highlights his singing ability and has been compared to the likes of Prince and James Brown, once again Gambino outdid all expectations put in front of him. The lead single Redbone has become a hit, with a funky riff and an outstanding voice throughout it’s obvious to see why he’s called one of the best talents on the planet.
With talent that’s undeniable, Donald Glover has weaved his way through pretty much every big media field there is and excelled in all, starting off as an R.A at NYU and currently one of America’s biggest faces with several awards and accolades to his name it really seems as though he’s just doing whatever he can do because he wants to. Despite controversy and claims of mediocrity following the early part of his career, as well as trials and tribulations in the later part he’s grown into a superstar. His influence is phenomenal, artists like Chance the Rapper and Isaiah Rashad have a style reminiscent of his and his mention of Migos’ Bad & Boujee during the Golden Globes helped drive the song to number 1 in the US. He’s not going away any time soon and is somebody who’s the epitome of hard work and dedication. Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, MCDJ, Troy from Community or Earn from Atlanta, whatever you want to call him, you have to appreciate and respect what he’s been able to achieve so far.
Words by Rohan Parmar.