The Evolution of Childish Gambino


Most people find baseball slow and painfully boring — they’re not wrong. It does, however, have a great vocabulary everyone loves to use (think high schoolers talking about sex). Another baseball term is “five–tool,” an adjective for a player who can do it all: run, catch, throw, hit the ball and hit it far. Only the best of the best — like A–Rod and Ken Griffey Jr.— can claim to be true five–tool players. For the NARPs in the room, those guys are awesome at literally everything a player can do on the field. They’re like the Donald Glovers of baseball.

Glover, the man also known as Childish Gambino, is a five–tool entertainer:  he can rap, sing, act, write and do stand–up. Not only does he do these things, he does them well. (And honestly, I doubt these are his only five talents. If I were flipping through channels and saw him win Top Chef or a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament, I wouldn’t even do a double take.) From his early days as a stand–up comedian writing for 30 Rock, to his breakout role as Troy on Community, to the present day with his Golden Globe–winning series Atlanta, Glover has stolen many a show on the screen. Smart money says he will win over even more audiences soon, as he’s been tapped for a role in the next Star Wars film.

But all of development he’s undergone as a writer and actor pales in comparison to that of his musical alter ego. It’s nearly impossible to believe that the man who made Camp in 2011 is the same artist we know and love today. For all the charm that went into the first album, too many lines are ridiculous beyond the point of entertainment, like “I’ve seen it all like I’m John Mayer’s penis hole,” or just straight up corny, like “I’m screamin’ ‘What the fuck is up?’ like I ain’t seen the sky.” While it was clear that Gambino’s wit and sense of humor could translate from his work on set to the booth, his tackling of more serious topics, such as his struggles fitting into alternative culture as a Southern black kid, still needed some refinement (see “Hold You Down” or “Outside” and compare to his more recent work). Ultimately, Camp came off more like a side project that a sitcom cast member recorded in his free time rather than the work of an artist with a concrete identity.

That perception quickly changed when Gambino released Because the Internet, his sophomore album. Released alongside a 72–page screenplay and forward–thinking promo (think strange websites, a 30–minute short film with no plot and bonus tracks that fans had to find by digging through code), the project represented a departure from a lovable but cheesy punchline rapper to a more mature, subtle and conceptual artist. Loosely connected by references to the Internet, the album tackles themes of love, death, depression and isolation with a level of depth absent from Camp. While the first album yells things at you, the second album speaks softly, inviting you to explore further if you so choose. And if you don’t, the music still sounds damn good—especially on the tracks where Gambino primarily sings, such as “Urn” or “Flight of the Navigator”. The revelation of his beautiful singing voice on the album foreshadowed the daring step he took next.

Even when rapping on Because the Internet, Gambino replaces the nasal whine present throughout Camp with a delivery much more palatable for the casual listener. While the album isn’t perfect—at 19 tracks and nearly 60 minutes, it’s frankly long as fuck, not to mention a few of the more esoteric songs in the middle could be cut—it represented the formation of a musical identity and left many hip–hop heads who’d previously dismissed him curious for what was to come.

Between Because the Internet and his third album, Gambino released a two–part mixtape/EP, STN MTN/Kauai to hold fans over. While the first half, STN MTN, is just Gambino rapping—mostly about nothing—over famous Atlanta rap beats, it’s Kauai that steals the show. He puts the R&B style he introduced in his second album into overdrive, producing beachy, soulful tracks like “Sober” and “The Palisades,” songs that sound like the work of someone who’d been in this genre for their entire career. While Gambino mostly stayed out of the limelight during this time period, his live cover of Tamia’s “So Into You” on Triple J’s “Like A Version” cemented his status as a legitimate vocalist.

Given the complex rollout of his last album, few were surprised when Gambino announced a two–day festival at Joshua Tree, accompanied by an app, to play his third album live before releasing it. Phones were banned, so minimal footage or audio escaped the event—but word of mouth mostly reported that it was “different” and contained little to no rapping. Even with this information, “Awaken, My Love!” seemed to take every listener by surprise—it’s a funk album that sounds like it arrived via time machine from the 70’s. Most listeners believed Gambino was singing pitched up, or with loads of vocal effects—theories he put to rest when he performed “Redbone” flawlessly on Fallon. And unless the warbling on “California” can be considered “rap,” there's no rapping on the album. Despite its unlikely genre, nearly every listener can agree: the album is pretty damn good.

While the album may be sonically and thematically different, a close listen reveals bits and pieces of the Gambino of old—just more fleshed out, deliberate and purposeful. The black American experience is the clear central theme, but many of the songs’ specific meanings are left open to interpretation—for example, “Zombies” could easily be about record labels, police brutality or any generally oppressive society. “Awaken, My Love!” shows Gambino mastering the art of subtlety: saying more by saying less. On “Redbone,” a song about a past lover, “My peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool–Aid” might sound silly at first, but it actually uses two sweet “black” foods (one in color and the other in stereotype) to describe a failed relationship of two people who, on paper, are great for each other, but just can’t work things out. The Gambino who recorded Camp couldn’t have expressed a sentiment that profound in a full song, let alone in a single line. Without rapping, he still finds ways to incorporate the silliness that had people originally falling in love, like “I’m going to eat you alive…I don’t eat fast food, so don’t run too fast” on “Terrified”.

Glover himself has said he viewed Atlanta and “Awaken, My Love!” as the same project while working on them, so it’s no surprise that both possess a similar authority over the listener. Just as nearly every line and scene in Atlanta has the audience analyzing for a deeper meaning, every chord change and instrument choice on the album feels intentional. While some may miss the crude humor from his initial television work, and the immature and goofy punchlines from his earlier music, it’s worthwhile to appreciate the incredible development Glover’s made across every avenue he graces. After all, five­–tool players don’t come around every day—especially not those who never stop sharpening their tools.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons. 

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