I’ve discovered the mega-talented Donald Glover twice in the past year. First, as the hilarious college student Troy on NBC’s Community, and more recently as the superb rapper Childish Gambino.
Glover adopted his rap name after using the Wu-Tang Name Generator and after releasing a few digital mixtapes and EPs put out his first studio album, Camp in November.
Childish Gambino is unlike any rapper I’ve heard, in subject matter if not sound. Glover grew up poor in Georgia but his parents worked hard to put him in good schools — “white” schools — where he excelled in creative writing and drama. His songs are littered with references to the constant claims that he’s an Oreo, not really black, a blerd (black nerd) and “faggot” whose clothes and voice set him apart.
Those challenges, which only multiplied when he entered the hardcore world of rap, make his material fresh and exciting. He is speaking to the countless middle class black kids who feel torn between two cultures. By alternately adopting the dick-swinging swagger of contemporary rap artists and poking fun at it, he is beating those artists at their own game.
Childish Gambino has great flow, his high voice sometimes reminiscent of Eminem, sometimes Kanye. His beats are surprisingly tight for somebody without a high-priced producer backing him up (he produced the album himself with a partner). But what really sets him apart are his maddeningly inventive lyrics. Every line contains double and triple meanings, and he litters his songs with hilarious pop culture references.
Take this line from closing track ‘That Power’: “So it’s 400 blows to these Truffaut niggas.” In the verse, he’s calling out black poseurs who claim to have served time because it helps their street cred. 400 Blows is a film by the New Wave French auteur Francois Truffaut. Truffaut is a play on true-faux (or true fakes). The protagonist of 400 Blows is a kid who really did serve time in jail.
In ‘Hold You Down,’ a song about racism by both blacks and whites, he notes that movie producers always pair Will Smith up with Latino girls (black girls would make the movie too black, and white girls would make it too uncomfortable) and takes this clever shot: “Dude, you’re not not racist cause The Wire’s in your Netflix queue.”
It’s hard not to love a guy who names a song ‘Firefly’ and has me genuinely considering that it’s a reference to a Joss Whedon show (as Troy once said on Community: “Me and Abed have an agreement. If one of us dies, we stage it to look like a suicide caused by the unjust cancellation of Firefly.”).
And could the phrase “seriously black” possibly be a Harry Potter reference? Coming from Childish Gambino, it’s a good bet.
The multi-tasking Glover raps on one track, “I won’t stop until James Franco is known as the white Donald Glover.” I hope he doesn’t stop anytime soon. Childish Gambino is the first rapper since Eminem that I want to follow wherever he goes.
Now when they see us on the streets
All they wanna do is take pics
And I’m like, okay (yeah, okay)
And when they hear us on the beat
All they wanna do is make hits
And I’m like, okay (yeah, okay)
And if you’re feelin’ like I’m feelin’
How the world should be: perfectly
Fire like I’m third degree, and suddenly
Shawty, we got so high
Skateboardin’ down at Washington Square
Lookin’ for quarters
Maybe afford a falafel for dinner, ugh
I’m so broke man
Facebook messages from college kids who hollerin’
Girls like, “we love you, we go to LSU
You gotta do a show so we can come and molest you”
This rap stuff is magic
I used to get called “Oreo” and “Faggot”
I used to get more laughs when I got laughed at
Oh you got a mixtape? That’s fantastic
But everybody thought it was jokes though
They half right, the joke is
I got flow so don’t act like
You ain’t sittin’ there with your friends like, it can’t be
I know Donald Glover, he weak man, he campy
I’m still knocked down, but I up the ante
Me and hip-hop, that black Sid and Nancy
It’s hard to make HOV the footsteps you followin’
Especially when your niggas look like Carlton
The pretty girls usin’ skin so soft
Only be likin’ black dudes with their hats broke off
Nigga you act too soft
Fuck you! I’m from the projects
My mom was just workin’ to give me options
No live shows, cause I can’t find sponsors
For the only black kid at a Sufjan concert
Yeah so, whatcha gonna do man?
You won’t speak to the hood, man
If I was given one chance I think I could, man
These black kids want somethin’ new, I swear it
Somethin’ they wanna say but couldn’t cause they embarrassed
All I do is make the stuff I would’ve liked
Reference things I wanna watch, reference girls I wanna bite
Now I’m firefly like a burning kite
And yousa fake fuck like a fleshlight
Even dudes who like me straight lookin’ at me crazy
Like, how the hell he drop a EP and meet Jay-Z?
Girls used to tell me I ain’t cool enough
Now text me pics sayin’, “You could tear this up”
I don’t really like shades, big rims, or jewelry
But gettin’ time of day from a model is new to me
Bein’ me isn’t as hard as it used to be
Now everyone sing the chorus man, you do it so beautifully