"Jesus Christ," sputtered Questlove via an Instagram update recently. "The co-author of #WearwolfBarmitzvah just SONNED the shit outta me. In the best way possible."
Incredibly, I knew exactly how he felt: I couldn't, and still can't, believe that after years of smug dismissal, I was now not only a straight-up fan of Donald Glover—but also of his musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. If not long ago you'd asked me to nutshell the dude (exactly the sort of thing people ask me to do), I'd probably have told you that he's (A) a funny guy and a decent actor with some great comic instincts, (B) an irredeemably corny rap hobbyist, and (C) all of this because he's a child of privilege, awash in Hollywood connects, doing music as a lark.
Yeah: Until fairly recently, I was the last dumbass on earth who still thought the dude was Danny Glover's son, something that seems to be more of a persistent, widespread assumption than an actual rumor. (Or maybe it's because, even though I love all manner of young folks' rap that makes people my age take the dog out, all the Gambino music I heard still made me say, "I'm too old for this shit.")
So much for my prejudices that nepotism had plugged him into a show-biz career. He got it the old-fashioned way: being discovered by Tina Fey.
Which, honestly, is a testament to her vision. His work on 30 Rock won him awards, his five-year run as Troy was one of the best things about Community, and he even got to be Lena Dunham's diversity hire on Girls. You would think with all this Hollywood action that his paltry rapping aspirations would go the way of Ron Artest's, or Joaquin Phoenix's (remember?), or (hopefully) Shia LaBeouf's. Like Questo said, this is the guy who coauthored one of the most memorable bits (all of 18 seconds long) in a show seasons deep in memorable bits—so why the fuck does he ever need to explain himself to Charlemagne?
Because—I mean—he surely wasn't serious. He had a good thing going—no way he was really focusing the rap game, rapping over Sleigh Bells samples with that nasal-ass voice and those punch lines that'd get him laughed out of the lunchroom? Nah. (He even called himself 'Bino—which just sounds like Beano, the after-dinner fart suppressant. Please, just light a match.)
Upon the very cursory listens I gave him, it was all too easy to write Gambino off as a low-stakes Kanye imitation, a self-styled outsider with some screaming token-negro insecurities, chipped-up shoulders, and serious fetishizing of Asian women. I could sleep soundly, ignoring his prolific output, especially once his official debut album, Camp, caught that infamous 1.6 Pitchfork skewering.
Two years later, after the prerequisite introspection, drugs, and renting out of Chris Bosh's palatial mansion, came 2013's Because the Internet. Incredibly, not only did this album mostly cook off his try-hard properties, it perfected his pastiche. Where Camp was a poor man's Graduation, Internet bridged the climes of Channel Orange and Yeezus both to somewhere unique. Of course, it was made to make the most sense alongside a 76-page screenplay and after watching the head-twisting music videos and 23-minute sorta-making-of short (the sublime Clapping for the Wrong Reasons) directed by Hiro Murai.
It was enjoyable enough without doing all those Zaireeka gymnastics, but still, knowing all that, I recall that I could barely bring myself to play the Chance the Rapper–featuring song "The Worst Guys" on KEXP. Somehow, Internet was kinda dope—it topped the rap charts, was nominated for a Grammy, and went gold, after all—but Gambino's aura was still a skosh too dorky. (This is coming from someone who will occasionally pull out a They Might Be Giants album.)
In the end, it literally took Atlanta—a TV series that from episode one became one of my favorite shows ever—for me to finally take Donald Glover totally serious. The (mostly) Murai-directed series stars Glover as Earn Marks, a Princeton dropout without prospects, who angles himself into managing his cousin's burgeoning d-boy rap career. In the spaces in between what passes for plot, it's every bit as absurd, bleak, and hilarious as real life, with a dreamlike, hypnotic pace and an all-Black writers' room.
I'm not exaggerating when I say I've waited for something like Atlanta my whole life.
Ten days after the season finale, he dropped "Me and Your Mama," the first single and opening track from "Awaken, My Love!"—Glover's best-realized musical moment to date, and the album that finally made me take Childish Gambino seriously. It's an explicit—and blissfully rap-free—call back to prime-time 1970s funk and its exhortations of Black liberation and cosmic connection, the album's semblance to its influences is as clear as ever: The ecstatic face on its Maggot Brain–esque cover is right in your face. You'd have to be devoid of funk entirely to miss the DNA of "Can You Get to That" in the hook to "Have Some Love." There's no missing the skagged-out nod to Sly and the Family Stone's "Just Like a Baby" in his "Baby Boy." (Of course, "California" veers far too close to "The Piña Colada Song.") Glover's singing, screaming, and wailing isn't the strongest by any means, but that's kind of a funk tradition, too.
I keep talking about this record, but one of the most ebullient moments on Solange's A Seat at the Table is "Junie," a tribute to Walter "Junie" Morrison, OG Ohio Player and later member of George Clinton's P-Funk mob. "I wrote Junie after staying at a pity party too long," Knowles tweeted, "for being the ultimate genius poster of 'Can't nobody steal your magic.'" There are parasites stealing that magic, zombies walking all around us. Teeth in our necks—but the funk not only moves, it re-moves. May it further excise all corny instinct from our hero. Even the plaintive chorus of "Stay woke!" on "Redbone" feels more regenerative than hashtaggy.
The essential conditions that mandated Black music at its most cosmically slopped are back like they never left: a nation pulling apart, seams smacking, hungry for more young; endless war; a corrupt president-elect to beat the band. (Black) music at its best or most timely responds to what (Black) people need right then—and as such, the academic, irony-clad institutions of music criticism often miss the point or disregard it entirely. I'm not sweating that. I'm looking around, realizing that the funny dude from TV, the next Lando Calrissian, for love's sake, has been quietly taking over—developing a nuanced, evolving, and loving multimedia treatise on Black worth all the while, and I'm here for it. (And I'm glad.)
Our messengers aren't always perfect, or crystal clear. Some of them fall off completely and go the other way. But if it feels like the end times, then it also must feel like the Mothership is creeping near—don't front, heed the call if you do catch it. Counterprogramming is in effect.