The welcomed evolution of Donald Glover
Adam Ramos | Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Donald Glover is historically corny. Not corny in the fun, Troy and Abed from “Community” sense, but corny more in the vein of throwing a desert festival in your own honor, naming it “Pharos,” and asking attendees to “dress in your frequency color.” Whether it’s comedy, acting or music, he struggles with authenticity, resulting in a pretty standard level of corniness throughout most of his projects. But in 2016, things are different: everything is finally coming together for Glover and the results are astounding.
For most of his career, Glover has operated in the peripheries of multiple mediums, never completely embracing a particular style or persona. After beginning his career as writer on NBC’s “30 Rock,” Glover landed a lead role on “Community” playing the quirky, underachieving ex-high school football star, Troy. When “Community” began to develop its cult following, the Atlanta native branched out, dabbling in acting, stand-up and music, sometimes simultaneously. And all things considered, he was pretty successful. Glover’s expressly nerdy persona garnered him fans and praise, yet he always seemed to fall short of fully establishing a formidable voice in any one particular genre.
Glover’s weakest outlet was always music. Under the rap moniker “Childish Gambino,” a name bequeathed via a “Wu-Tang Name Generator,” Glover’s Kanye-lite beats and listless lyrics almost always fell short. Childish Gambino’s major label debut, “Camp,” is a self-obsessed mix between the very worst of Odd Future and the very best of Hoodie Allen, a potent combination for vomiting out lines like, “This Asian dude, I stole his girl, and now he got that Kogi beef.” Corny may be an understatement.
Even Glover’s much-hyped and over-promoted sophomore effort, “Because The Internet,” felt tiresome. Despite an impressive list of features including Chance the Rapper, Miguel and Azealia Banks, the album felt like an overstuffed conceit to the problems surrounding Glover’s previous works. Even worse, any supposed racial or social commentary Glover hoped to convey felt hollow and disingenuous. “An elephant never forgets, so my dick remembers everything,” Gambino boasted on the album’s “Freaks and Geeks,” once and for all proving why his core demographic was not-so-edgy high school suburbanites claiming to be “into rap.”
In 2014, NBC cancelled “Community” and Glover released an EP called “KAUAI.” At just 7 songs, “KAUAI” was Glover’s most cohesive work to date. While the EP still suffered from the usual Gambino issues, and even included a ridiculous Jaden Smith recited spoken word love letter, “KAUAI” found the rapper pivoting. The usual deep bass, aggressive lyrics and choppy flow of albums past were replaced with breezy synths and soulful falsetto choruses. The EP’s closer “V.3005 – Beach Picnic Version” reimagined “Because The Internet’s” pop hit “3005” into a relaxed beach dream, and it worked. The production and arrangements on “V.3005 – Beach Picnic Version” seemed to point in the direction of Glover’s superb new singles.
2016 finds Glover taking a giant artistic leap forward. After a cryptic announcement confirmed news of a new Gambino record titled “Awaken, My Love!,” Glover dropped two singles, both showcasing an entirely new direction for the Atlanta rapper. The first, “Me and Your Mama” is a sprawling mix of gospel, funk and blues, centered around a distraught Glover lamenting an unreciprocated love. Complete with a dazzling intro and an Alabama Shakes-reminiscent chorus, “MAYM” shines. And then we got “Redbone,” Glover’s greatest song yet. Sultry, pitched-up vocals float over a sea of 70s’ funk and Tom Tom Club-esque synths in the track. The ingenuousness that seemed to plague past projects is completely stripped away in “Redbone” — in its place is soulful authenticity. In the song, Glover preaches for his audience to “stay woke:” slang for “be alert,” poignant commentary in today’s chaotic socio-political landscape.
Glover’s other recent endeavor — FX’s highest rated comedy, “Atlanta” — shines equally bright. As creator, writer and star, Glover crafts a surreal yet realistic world in “Atlanta.” In the show, Princeton dropout Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) attempts to navigate a complicated adulthood while struggling to manage his estranged cousin turned popular rapper, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry). Lakeith Stanfield shines as the spacey sage Darius, a close friend and confidant to Miles. Not without a few speed bumps, “Atlanta” is one of television’s most innovative programs, pushing the boundaries of a comedy while acutely capturing the absurdity of life as a 20-something in 2016.
For whatever reason, things have finally clicked for the 33-year-old. All of Glover’s previously disjointed projects are beginning to converge and any lingering corniness is thankfully dissipating. If you haven’t had a chance to watch “Atlanta,” you’ve got a pretty great potential binge on your hands this winter break; and make sure to stay woke for Glover’s upcoming album, “Awaken, My Love,” due out next week.