Donald Glover, Renaissance man of comedy and rap
Donald Glover had things to do.
In his trailer on the set of the NBC sitcom “Community” last spring, the up-and-coming young comedian itemized his various pop cultural obligations. There was the screenplay for a movie he had pitched that still needed plenty of work. There was the TV pilot Glover was obligated to deliver (with, of course, a prominent role earmarked for himself) under his contract with NBC. Then there was his day job: performing as Troy, a former prom king and high school jock matriculated in classes at “Community’s” titular community college.
But what the 26-year-old Atlanta native really wanted to do was something entirely different.
“I just wanted to rap,” Glover said, seated on the patio of Chateau Marmont nursing a gin and tonic. “I was, like, ‘I want an album!’”
He played tracks he had put together for cast mates Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs, who enthusiastically encouraged him to pursue his music — even if that meant putting those other gigs on hold. “That changed everything. I just said, ‘I’ll do whatever I want,’” the comedian said.
Cut to the release of “Culdesac,” an album-length mix-tape Glover put out for free on the Internet this month under his hip-hop alias, Childish Gambino. The album has already been downloaded more than 10,000 times, garnering no small amount of buzz among rap and hipster blognoscenti. Mixing b-boy braggadocio and cunning wordplay, it details a specific worldview with numerous references to being a social outcast, experiencing trouble with women, getting punked out while growing up, as well as Glover’s mom’s abiding concern that he’ll turn into “the black Heath Ledger.” The album’s alterna-rock-augmented beats and emo-level of emotional rawness, meanwhile, are shot through with surprisingly legitimate R&B vocals also sung by Glover, making “Culdesac” an unexpected delight: a sung-rapped cri de coeur that’s as accomplished as any indie hip-hop released this year.
But contrary to his wider renown as a stand-up comedian who collected a Rising Comedy Star award at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival on Friday — a former writer on the Emmy-winning TV sitcom “30 Rock” and alum of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade comic troupe whose videos as part of the Derrick Comedy Group have become bona fide viral sensations — the mix-tape is decidedly not a joke.
Moreover, it is Glover’s fifth mix-tape as Childish Gambino, the MC moniker he arrived at as a New York University undergrad by putting his real name in a Wu-Tang Clan name generator on the Internet.
Problem is, convincing others he’s serious about being an MC — or, for that matter, creating a wider consciousness that Childish Gambino is a man of various pursuits, among them co-writing and appearing in the comedy video “Bro Rape,” which has been streamed on YouTube nearly 8 million times — hasn’t been simple.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand it’s the same person,” Glover said. “I don’t think they think the guy who wrote for ’30 Rock’ is also the guy on ‘Community’ who’s also the guy in ‘Bro Rape.’ There’s so many little things I’ve done. I get frustrated, like, ‘Connect the dots!’ Eventually they’ll catch up.”
Glover’s rhyme-spitting started in his freshman year of college in 2002 with a self-produced, self-released mix-tape called “The Younger I Get” — an effort his classmates widely derided for being too confessional and wildly out of step with hip-hop’s boilerplate subject matter: babes, bullets, bling. “It was like somebody ripped out my heart and put it on a CD,” he recalled.
Straight out of NYU, he landed a plum job writing for “30 Rock,” yet stuck with hip-hop and put out another mix-tape, “Sick Boi,” in 2008 — despite a constant white noise of constructive criticism from those around him.
“People were asking, ‘Why’s his voice so high? Why is he rapping about Tina Fey? That’s not going to get you any street cred,’” Glover said. “Rapping was just something I liked. Part of the problem is, people want the persona of the rapper to be hungry, like, ‘I gotta make it.’ People get mad if you’re not putting everything into it.”
But it was Childish Gambino’s 2009 mix-tape “I Am Just a Rapper” — on which Glover raps over indie rock samples from the hipster-anointed likes of Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells — that finally spread his rap renown. Oscar-nominated director Jason Reitman — who sometimes performs as a DJ under the handle Bad Meaning Bad — became a fan, knocked out by Glover’s songs’ “humor and musicality.” And that year, as if being a triple-threat actor-writer-comedian wasn’t enough, Glover’s independently produced “Mystery Team” (a dark comedy concocted by Derrick Comedy Group, a wild mash-up of Encyclopedia Brown and “CSI”) was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.
In Park City, Utah, for the festival, Reitman attempted to set up a performance with Glover, although the concert never came together.
“He is equally engaging whether he is dropping rhymes, doing stand-up or acting,” Reitman said in an e-mail. “He holds that rare combination of knowing what to say and how to say it. Who shares a similar skill set? Will Smith? Eminem? Shel Silverstein? I don’t know. Donald holds one of my favorite qualities as an artist — he’s an original.”
The comedian quit “30 Rock” after three seasons to pursue stand-up comedy but quickly nabbed his co-starring role on “Community,” which enters its second season this fall.
Glover conceived and recorded much of “Culdesac” on a mobile setup in his trailer between takes on the show. Thanks to “Community,” he also met Ludwig Goransson, the series’ composer, and enlisted him to engineer and co-produce tracks for “Culdesac.”
“I was really impressed by Donald’s musicality,” Goransson said. “I was very surprised by his chord changes, melodies. And it’s really not easy to sing as well as he does. He’s hard-working and very versatile. He knows exactly what he wants.”
He added: “I didn’t know he was a writer until I started listening to the lyrics and he’s on there rapping about Tina Fey.”
For Glover — who waged a Twitter campaign to portray Spider-Man in the re-booted film franchise planned by director Marc Webb but lost out to actor Andrew Garfield for the role — the endgame as Childish Gambino is not to land a record deal but to create consciousness about his creative capacity. Glover rightly sees himself as the rare pop cultural multi-tasker who can write and perform in addition to providing a soundtrack for whatever TV show or movie he’s working on and even provide its wardrobe as part of a Childish Gambino fashion line that Glover one day envisions. So much so that he sleeps little and resists taking time off to make good on his ambitions.
“I believe it’s my responsibility right now,” said Glover, draining the last of his gin and tonic. “If I slowed down, if I took a vacation, that’s not only a detriment to me — but to the world. Not like I have so much to give the world but … yeah, I have so much to give the world! I have so many ideas and things I want to do, sleeping isn’t going to accomplish that.”