Childish Gambino: Donald Glover Does It All

Music Features Childish Gambino

“Yeah! Yes I’m on top! I’m going this hard, and no I won’t stop!” shouts Childish Gambino, aka comic actor Donald Glover, in his song “Hero”—“Actor, writer, rapper. Nigga, I do all of it.”

But it isn’t just typical rap-world bluster. Glover really does do all of it: He started writing for 30 Rock straight out of college, joined the ensemble cast of NBC’s Community in 2009, made a movie called Mystery Team that same year and showed it at Sundance, all the while performing standup and recording three full-length albums of his own distinctive brand of hyper-clever rap music.

Now, at 28, with his fourth album Camp releasing today on Glassnote Records (and already getting tons of hype), it’s hard not to agree that Glover is on top. “My career is like awards shows, it’s going long,” he says in “You Know Me”; “I make it look real easy, like I’m showing thong.”

He’s literally on top at this year’s Moogfest in Asheville, N.C., elevation 2100 feet—and perhaps literally freezing, jumping around an outdoor stage on a night that would eventually get down to 27 degrees.

Never mind the weather, Glover sticks with his signature outfit, short-shorts and a polo, adding only a red-and-white striped wool cap for warmth. At one point during the show, he takes off the cap and sets it on the platform in front of the drum kit—then, a couple songs later, caves and put it back on. Brrr. When I meet up with him half an hour after his set, his handshake is warm. “I’ve been sitting on these hands since the end of the show,” he explains with a grin.

Before meeting Glover, the thing I’d noticed about his Childish Gambino persona was its incessant cleverness. Other rappers get clever, of course, as in Kanye’s lines from “Gorgeous”: “The same people that tried to blackball me / forgot about two things, my black balls.” But they’re not chronically, constantly, even suicidally clever the way Glover is, whose every line seems loaded with punning double-entendre.

On “Bonfire” he overdoes it with, “My dick is like an accent mark / It’s all about the over-e’s.” And how about, in a guest appearance on J. Cole’s “Who Dat Pt. 2,” the information-age-appropriate comedy of “I’mma hit it twice: retail. / I got a package like a gangsta: G-mail. / Google and a penis reference, same sentence, goody goody!” So many layers of irony.

Glover’s songs are loaded with literary references, too. On the runaway YouTube hit “Freaks and Geeks” (4.7 million views so far, and more than 30,000 “likes”), he famously says, “But beware this shit is potent. / E. E. Cumming on her face, / Now that’s poetry in motion.” This line became a mini-meme in literary circles, editors forwarding it, poets using it as their Facebook statuses. It was tweeted and Tumblred to kingdom come.

In person, he’s true to the character he portrays on Community, Troy Barnes—middle-class black kid, funny, full of energy, unabashed lover of life, music and girls. His recent performance of “Bonfire” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon shows an explosive performer with satiric wit so biting it’d make Jonathan Swift blush:

“You’re my favorite rapper now” Yeah, dude, I better be,
Or you can fuckin’ kiss my ass, Human Centipede.
You wanna see my girl? I ain’t that dumb.
You wanna see my girl? Check
Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some?
I don’t know, all I know is I’m the best one.

Human Centipede, like so many other Childish Gambino references, is an out-of-the-way attraction on the popular landscape: a horror movie in which a deranged scientist kidnaps tourists and sews their mouths to each other’s anuses to create a bizarre pet. Whether you catch the reference or not, “human centipede” is also a perfect epithet to follow “You can kiss my ass.” As with almost all of Glover’s lines, it can be taken at least two ways, depending on what you know.

“We played ‘Bonfire’ first at House of Blues in San Diego,” says Glover, reclining on his hotel bed at the Renaissance Asheville. “I got really drunk afterward, and that was the night that Amy Winehouse died. I threw up in my sleep on my back, and I was supposed to be alone that night, but my band decided to stay instead. They stayed in my room with me—basically saved my life. I remember thinking, like, ‘Oh yeah, the 27-year-old thing.’ Because I was 27. But House of Blues was a great place to do ‘Bonfire.’ They got all the references. Just kinda like my people.”

That show happened during the 41st annual Comic-Con, a convention that began as a gathering of comic book fans and is now basically co-opted by Hollywood, which explains why Glover’s people were present in force. Writers, diehard fans, actors, producers, pop-culturati from all over the world were on hand to witness the birth of “Bonfire.” It also explains why the death of Winehouse was the talk of the town.

It also, by the way, explains why legitimacy is such an issue for Glover. Just as there’s tension between the original nerdy Comic-Con of the early ’70s—with a speaker roster that included Ray Bradbury and Jack Kirby—and the new, star-studded, red-carpeted Entertainment Weekly 21st-century version of Comic-Con, so there is tension between rapper and actor Glover: “Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some?” is a question he visits and revisits.

The best example of this back-and-forth is Camp’s fourth track, “All the Shine.” It’s also his humblest song. “Niggas keep asking whether this dude’s for real or not,” he says in the first verse; “Why does everybody have a problem with talking stupid shit? / Or is it real shit? / ’Cause sometimes that stupid shit is real shit.” Later, even more revealingly, he asks, “Is there room in the game for a lame who rhymes, / who wears short-shorts and makes jokes sometimes?”

Of “All the Shine,” Glover says, “That’s the most satisfying, honestly, for me. I love it. Just like, that’s what I’m trying to say, I’m trying to make you guys feel this way.” To feel like we might or might not belong. Part of the genius of Childish Gambino is its exploration of the celebrity identity as peripheral to “real life”—its portrayal, on the one hand, of growing up in Stone Mountain, Ga., and of the fast-paced life Glover now leads. “No matter how far the hood seems, / We all got hood dreams. / I always wanted to get picked on the cool team, / But alone is exactly how I should be,” he says, then the breaks into the chorus, “I really wanna do right, and it doesn’t matter. / We’ve got all the shine we need to find.”

The combination of vulnerability and confidence dates back to his earliest days at 30 Rock, in 2006, when he first met Tina Fey. How did Glover get a job as a network comedy writer within months of graduating with a degree in Dramatic Writing from NYU? “I ask myself that every day,” he says. “Tina’s really smart about having an eclectic point of view. She has to be, as a woman in a male-driven field. And also she works through Tracy [Morgan], who you have to understand how he’s funny to write for him. A lot of people would just not try, and I think she got it.”

Glover understates the matter: “A lot of rappers don’t get their confidence from 35-year-old white women who run their own television show.” But his degree in Dramatic Writing and subsequent experiences on 30 Rock were “helpful with everything—movies, writing my album—very helpful in terms of structure.”

All the characters on 30 Rock—some of whom, like the foppish Southern page boy Kenneth Parcell, Glover himself helped develop—are peripheral. Tracy Morgan’s blingy, clubbing caricature of Hollywood/rap celebrity is firmly committed to faithfulness in his marriage. Fey’s Liz Lemon is a self-conscious Cathy-type unable to marry, grounded by her own lack of confidence. The writers are, well, writers. Only Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy is a card-carrying member of the socioeconomic franchise, and even he has his moments of doubt.

Childish Gambino, as the rap project of a television celebrity, is marginalized in its own way. Fitting in is one of its major concerns, and Tina Fey’s woman-in-man’s-world success is cited as a basis for continuing to try. At the end of Culdesac’s closing track, “The Last,” Glover recognizes both his peripheral status and his debt to Fey:

What I wanna know is why I never fit in right,
Like a fat dude getting on a packed flight.
Even when I make friends in the hallways
I’m wishing I was someone else always. …
I had a high voice, they called me “faggot eight mile,”
So I stopped writing for a very long time
Thinkin’ that a nigga wasn’t made to bust rhymes.
And this next part sounds like nonsense,
But I swear to God, Tina Fey gave me confidence,
Taught me everything that is good comes from honesty
Everybody’s got a voice, you just gotta follow it.
She on a role model shit.
From the day that I shook her hand
I knew that I’d never die a broke man.

With all this new success, he might not. But will he stay in touch with his heart? “This limelight burns like a motherfuck,” he admits, also in “The Last.” Again, despite all his talk of fame and fashion models, Glover’s heart is in Stone Mountain. Certainly, at least, talk of life in Georgia produced some of our discussion’s most poignant moments.

“Stone Mountain is very black now, but the village around the actual mountain is very white, and has always been and probably will always be,” he says. “It was severe when we were growing up. Pretty weird. I mean, I have those lines in ‘That Power’—‘Stone Mountain you raised me well / Stared at by Confederates but hard as hell.’ Where we used to go to the Stone Mountain laser show—if you haven’t been, you should go—people would throw like beer cans at us.”

The song that delves most deeply into Glover’s childhood is “Outside,” with lines like, “Dad lost his job, Mama work at Mrs. Winner’s? / Gun pulled in her face, she still made dinner / ‘Donald, watch the meter so they don’t turn the lights off’? / Workin’ two jobs so I can get into that white school / And I hate it there.” Later he adds, with beautiful close-rhyme, “We used to say I love you, now we only think that shit / ?It feels weird that you’re the person I took sink baths with.” If these memories aren’t exactly fond, they’re what Glover needs to make a case for his own legitimacy as a rapper.

And this world of memory is part of his daily life, even as a successful actor and burgeoning rapper: “I never talk to my parents or my brothers, and I really worry about them, and my dad doesn’t work anymore, and my mom doesn’t…they’re getting older, you know? I don’t feel like they’re taking care of themselves. I want to be there. And my sister’s in high school, and I’m just like not around.”

“My mom said something to me—one time I was fighting with my brothers and sisters, and she said something that really stuck with me. She pulled us apart and was like, ‘One day, me and your father are not going to be here. We’ll be dead, and you guys will be all you have.’”

“And it was a true thing. Because memories are the only things that really mean anything. Like everything in this room will be gone one day. Everything. Memories are the only thing. Every time I write something, all I’m doing is making you remember something I remember that is close to you. My dad just listened to Camp, and he was like, ‘I was in tears when I heard ‘Outside.’”

This sort of pathos may be likely for a kid who grew up black among middle-class whites in the American South, but the comedy isn’t necessarily. Glover started drawing comics when he was eight, then attended DeKalb School of the Arts where he remembers, “It really kind of blossomed. I was just like ‘Oh, people like you if you make them laugh.’” Glover’s inveterate wit and electric physical presence made him perfect for the stage, but wanting to complicate matters, he chose to focus on writing. “I was like, well, no one’s going to hire me as an actor just because I have a degree. And no one’s going to hire me as a writer just because I have a degree, but at least I’ll diversify the stuff I know. It was really helpful.”

School and family weren’t the only sources of comedy for Glover, though. Important feeds came through the music he was listening to, notably the Pharcyde and MF Doom.

Bizarre Ride II was the first time I ever heard rap where I was like yeah, I like girls, it made sense to me,” Glover says with newfound enthusiasm. “The thing that Biggie and Tupac did was they made it so you had to be a thug. And that’s what rap became. And that’s what being like, young black male became. Every young black male goes through this. And on some level, yes— but also no, not at all.

“Pharcyde’s not gangsta rap, they’re just kids, you know? Which is what I love. They’re not only kids, they’re kids that you knew. They’re just silly. I was like, those are kids I would hang out with.”

Glover encountered Doom in college, which is also where he met his best friend, fiction writer and comedian DC Pierson: “MF Doom, when we were in college, like me and DC, that’s all we listened to freshman year, sophomore year. MF Doom. And it was great because he had this—his thing was like, he had a cool voice, he was rapping about comics, but also he was doing punchline rap way before anybody was doing it. Before Lil Wayne got a hold of it.”

Like Doom, too, Glover’s use of lyrics is sometimes purely objective, aesthetic. As often as they’re deeply connected to his own memories, they’re there just to be there, sounding the way they sound. Glover describes his writing process as originating with the beat: “I’ve never written anything without the music first. I make the beat, and then it’s like, how does that make you feel when you’re walking around the room? And then you just kind of vomit words.”

“It’s all a feeling,” he adds. “Especially with music, it should be something you can put on in the background and feel like, ‘Why does this song make me sad?’ And then when you listen to it you’re like ‘Oh that’s why.’ I usually just sit down and, once I’ve listened to it ad nauseam and have words attached to it, I sit down and start to write.”

He finds an aesthetic purpose in obscenity, too: “I use words like ‘pussy’ and ‘dick’ a lot to deaden them. I think the thing that made me start doing Childish Gambino and Camp was the way people were looking at rap, and the way people were looking at me because I was a black kid.”

“I just want people to think about what it means to listen to a record. Especially when they listen to a rap record, what they’re expecting. Do they expect, like when 50 Cent says, ‘Bitch, you better suck my dick,’ do they expect him to walk offstage and be like, to a woman, ‘Bitch you better suck my dick’? And if that’s true, do you expect me to do that? When I say, ‘My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over-e’s,’ that ‘dick’ isn’t even necessary, really. It was just a play on words to get to ‘over-e’s.’ The truth is that I never think about my dick. I don’t care. What I try to do is call attention to, ‘Why do you need to hear this?’”

Glover’s drive for irony, his need for distance and recognition, comes from another vital source, too: Chris Rock. Glover cites him as a primary influence, even for his music. “I always listen to Chris Rock to help with the albums—Bigger and Blacker, most of the time. The thing about Bigger and Blacker is it just has so many true things in it that are so put in such a beautiful way, like he just tells you the truth, and you just have to laugh, because you’re like ‘Oh my God, this guy’s been following me.’ And that’s what comedy and music and all is supposed to do, it’s supposed to unlock something that was already there and make you aware of it so you’re a better person.”

So while Lil Wayne and Drake are comparisons Glover’s used to hearing, they aren’t where he’s from. And with his penchant for short-shorts and willingness to claim Tina Fey as his mentor, they probably aren’t where he’s going, either. He even cites postmodern playwright David Ives, author of All in the Timing, as the reason he got into writing in the first place. So where Glover’s going might be anybody’s guess, which is just part of what makes Childish Gambino so exciting to follow, both as a fan and a critic.

Posed with the question, “Which would you rather win, an Oscar, Grammy or Pulitzer Prize?” Glover answers, “Wow. Have any rappers won a Pulitzer?” Good question. But he’s obviously not in it for the hardware.

“A Pulitzer would be great, but like my dad told me, when he heard Camp, he texted me immediately, like, ‘Man!’—and I’ve heard this from two black dudes—they’re like, ‘I wish this existed when I was a kid. I wish I had heard that. I wish somebody was telling me it’s okay.’ Because that’s what I wanted.”

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