Donald Glover – AKA Childish Gambino, AKA Troy Barnes – ain’t an easy guy to understand . The jovial, jack-of-all-trades actor / comedian / musician seems to have traded everything likable about himself in for a shot at hip hop credibility. He’s making waves with his latest album, ‘Because The Internet’ (BTI), owing to the weirdness broadcasted on his various social networks in the months prior to its release. Regardless of whether you oppose the dude for being gimmicky or have simply never heard of him, ‘Bino’s BTI is worth an evening of your attention. Because it’s not simply an album. Glover has spent months using Instagram, Twitter, personal performances, interviews, videos, a screenplay and the album to craft a truly 21st Century example of concept art. And even if it’s not the best album this year, it’s certainly one of the most interesting.
For a 30 year old, Glover has had a career trajectory that would be the envy of many. He became a writer for 30 Rock straight out of university and hit niche comedic stardom soon after with his role as the dim-witted but loveable Troy Barnes in NBC’s Community. He coupled this with a 30 minute Comedy Central special and a 1 hour stand-up, ‘Weirdo’, to cement his position as a ‘nerdy and un-threatening black comedy guy that talks about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’.
I mean, take a peek.
However, not content with being known for comedy alone, from late 2010 Glover began releasing a bit of music under the moniker ‘Childish Gambino’. The cheery example of career diversity drew plaudits from publications such as the Guardian and comparisons with Plan B. Gambino’s early work featured some (emphasis on the some) interesting wordplay but was mostly dismissed as the gimmicky side-project of a funny man. On Heartbeats, his best-known song pre-BTI, Glover combined poppy hooks with a Justice-esque bassline to spit lines such as: ‘Make the beat retarded call it a slow-jam’. Funny? Meh. Memorable? No.
But then, a few months ago, he started tweeting this stuff
And retweeting this phrase
Only ever wearing this outfit
Doing freestyles like this (I mean, The expected Gambino surfaced for about 15 seconds from 1:30 before being squashed again)
Doing performances like this
And putting some pretty worrying stuff on instagram like this
And it seemed to make no sense.
I was just as lost as everyone else. It was clear that ‘Bino was releasing a new album, but what was with the sudden onrush of frowns?
The answer lies on becausetheinter.net – a 73 page screenplay that accompanies his new album and follows on from where Glover’s short film, Clapping for all the wrong reasons, left off. Because The Internet is the soundtrack to a narrative that has long been developing around Gambino, and may or may not be reflective of Glover’s real thoughts. The script stars ‘The Boy’, a character played by Glover in the script’s video snippets, and a handful of other friends / rappers (Chance the Rapper and FlyLo both feature quite heavily). Whether the script it is authentic and honest is kind of irrelevant to me – Glover has, through all of the aforementioned tools, crafted a world that is emotive and believable. And isn’t that what art should do?
Yeah, the album’s sound isn’t original. One play through reveals a great deal about Gambino’s influences – the crooned vocals sound more than a little like Frank Ocean, or Drake (to whom he is regularly compared) – and the beats aren’t particularly groundbreaking. And yeah, maybe the lyrics are nowhere near as introspective as Kanye’s on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, or as playful as Kendrick Lamar’s on ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. But none of this stuff is what makes BTI so powerful.
I dunno, maybe I’m rubbish at really listening to music normally. I can get lost in a song, and even accept that an album can craft a world – but I’m never truly there. Music normally only resonates with me if I can accurately call exactly how I was feeling when I heard it. The artist’s emotions / intentions are completely irrelevant for me. It’s terrible, but with most songs I just kind of let the lyrics wash over me and settle into the beat. So whilst I can accept that Kendrick’s Good Kid Mad City has some concept songs, like ‘Backseat Freestylin’ where his character has been forced to make a load of ludicrous claims to keep up with those around him – leading to him spitting ridiculous lines such as I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower so I could fuck a world for 72 hours – I’m only kind of interested at arms length. I prefer to listen to Money Trees and rap along without even paying attention to what I’m saying.
At first, that’s exactly the same shit that I pulled on BTI. The beat on Sweatpants is cool so I’d get into it. But then I listened to the album whilst reading the script, watching the video snippets, and forcing myself to be drawn in. And it opened up completely.
Now every time that I listen to one of the album’s songs, such as the hauntingly beautiful ‘Shadows’, I’m pulled back to the scene in the script and saddled with the same emotions that I felt reading it for the first time – and suddenly the weird ass performance on Arsenio’s couch begins to make sense. Yeah, he’s fucking sad, because when this song plays in the script he’s sat on the floor in his bathroom and re-living the moment at which his girlfriend left him. Gambino is ‘The Boy’. Maybe it’s the ambiguity between whether or not Glover is being himself or being this broken character, coupled with the fact that the weird expressions of self doubt and depression were so incredibly public – I’m looking at you, letters – but it all makes for an experience which is way more immersive than any single album. I was concerned for him after those Instagram posts, and engaged on a particularly emotional level. Say what you will about rap as an art form but it’s rare that anything other than films can do that to me.
The seemingly underwhelming video for 3005 makes complete sense when you realise that the emotion you’re supposed to tap into is that of a lost soul looking into some fun and finding nothing for him there. Gambino says: ‘I used to care what people thought, but now I care more / Man nobody out here has got it figured out, so therefore / I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending / depending on whether on its worth it, so insecure no one’s perfect’ alongside a beat that suggests hands in the air, but is really coursing with sadness. It’s only when I paid attention to his actual intentions that I realized that treating it as a feel good song was imposing it with my own meaning, rather than paying attention to what the artist was trying to convey.
So Glover was tweeting about being alone because ‘The Boy’ feels alone, and wearing the same outfit every day and in every interview because that’s what ‘The Boy’ would do, and writing really revealing stuff on Instagram because that’s what ‘The Boy’ would do. It’s unclear whether Glover really is the boy, but I don’t think it really matters. I’ve been completely engaged by the whole project – and it remains a project whether it’s a legitimate expression of personal confusion and angst or a public fantasy.
Fav songs – telegraph avenue, flight of the navigator, shadows