Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, and the Great Sigh of Relief
Some Friday in March of my senior year of high school, I was in a third floor science classroom with my five best friends, who retain that title today, and a woman I was way more into than I had any business being at 17-years old. We were skipping one of our school’s weekly assemblies as we normally did because by senior year it was just really hard to give a fuck anymore. Dwight slid his laptop across one of the long black science lab tables and told me to watch some YouTube video. It was titled, “Childish Gambino – Freaks and Geeks,” which elicited a sigh of resignation. By that point, the seven of us were huge Community fans and a few of us equally big fans of Derrick Comedy; Dwight had tried to show me Troy’s music many times before. I told him I wasn’t interested; his voice was unbearable and the audio mixing on his two mixtapes was just terrible. Dwight kept insisting but I’m a stubborn man especially when it comes to music. There are few artists who can turn around a first and second impression. If I give your music a chance and it sucks I’m not coming back—my philosophy is there’s just too much good music out there for that, you might get a second chance but definitely not a third. Still, Dwight insisted, so I watched it. And for those of you familiar with the song and the music video, it should come of no surprise that I was an instant fan.
First thing I did was grab Culdesac. Unlike the earlier I AM JUST A RAPPER 1 & 2, Culdesac was a pretty fantastic mixtape. Gambino’s lyrics were clever and punchy on I AM JUST A RAPPER 1 & 2, but Culdesac stepped it up. It certainly didn’t hurt that he got a new mic or hit puberty between the LPs, because his voice suddenly became bearable.
With Culdesac and EP firmly in rotation, it was obvious what had to be done come November 1st, 2011. With the tail end of Gambino’s Camp tour making its way to The Fillmore in Silver Spring, I had to see my first concert, at age 18. I showed up a half hour early to the venue with a single ticket. DJ SoSuperSam opened for him. She was okay; I can’t recall much of her set at all, but that also means she wasn’t terrible. Gambino took the stage about a half hour late, opening with “Freaks and Geeks” followed by a few tracks from Culdesac. The most memorable moment during the Culdesac set was when in a moment of complete reckless abandon Gambino pointed the mic out toward the crowd during “So Fly” thinking that enough people in the audience remembered the opening riff’s lyrics to sing along–I think maybe 5 people did–he laughed and went back to the mic. It was shortly after the Culdesac tracks that the whole concert went to absolutely batshit crazy; he opened the Camp set with “Bonfire,” a banger, of which a grainy recording at an earlier concert in the tour had been making the rounds. Ironically since the track had never actually been released, more of the audience knew the lyrics to that than the nearly two years’ old “So Fly.” Gambino played “Fire Fly”, “Heartbeat”, “All the Shine”, and “Backpackers” but it was during “You See Me” with the lyrics flashing behind him that the crowd lost it. He followed that up with hypest version of “Lights Turned On” imaginable.
I left the Fillmore ecstatic. Having never been drawn to live music, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in but I couldn’t have been more pleased.
From 2011 to 2012, it was Donald Glover season. With Camp and shortly after that ROYALTY, it really didn’t seem like Gambino could do any wrong. And with his stand-up special’s critical success and taking more of a leading role on Community the irony of I AM JUST A RAPPER was becoming more and more pronounced. Depending on the day throughout that two-year run you could’ve asked me what my favorite show was and who my favorite rapper was and I was likely to say Community and Childish Gambino. It was a good time to be a Donald Glover fan.
Then 2013 hit. Because the Internet kept getting pushed back with little to hold us over besides a terrible cell phone video of “Do Or Die.” And as Community was sinking, Glover jumped ship with an odd cryptic letter. While I liked Because the Internet, it wasn’t as good as his previous work and though ambitious — a whole screenplay accompanied it along with an odd short film, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons that was or wasn’t related — everything was starting to get weird. The goof ball from Derrick Comedy and Community and the man who brought you “If I’m a faggot spell it right, I got way more than two G’s” was disappearing. Things were artsier, darker, more laconic. There was less of a smile on his face. This was the guy who did a 10-minute fart joke in his stand-up special what seemed like a few months ago. I didn’t really think anything of it until November 11, 2013, where Glover was interviewed on the short-lived reboot of the Arsenio Hall show. Though he talked about leaving Community in the first way that made sense since his departure, Gambino looked and sounded depressed. The interview did anything but assuage my worries. If anything, it amplified them.
Artists, especially brilliant ones have a knack for going crazy and taking a nose dive off the deep end in one way or another. If this wasn’t going to be a dark time for Donald Glover, it was turning out at the least, a very weird time. Best case scenario: Salvador Dali; worst case, Kurt Cobain.
Around this time, there isn’t much good to say about Donald Glover or Childish Gambino, outside of a few cameo roles in good movies, a bigger role in a terrible movie, a very very meta appearance as the voice of Miles Morales on two episodes of Ultimate Spider-Man, and the kinda hot mess that was STN MTN/Kauai. Yes, these were the dark times. Years plagued with constantly googling “Childish Gambino” and “Donald Glover” to see if there was any news besides an FX show that had no timeline for release date. Many friends would hit me on text and then in later years on Facebook Messenger to ask me where he had gone, like Donald and I were on a first name basis. We don’t even have to talk about Roscoe’s Wetsuit, which was the saddest, never-should-happen-in-music since Child Rebel Soldier. TV and hip-hop kept getting better and better, seemingly leaving him behind, and after a while he faded from my conscious.
The good times begin.
A few months ago weird shit started popping up on my Facebook news feed about a pretty sketchy looking app that promised something vague about new Gambino music — Pharos. When I downloaded it there wasn’t really much to speak of on the app, just tickets to some show in Joshua Tree. Without the desire to make a 36-hour drive or the means to take an $800 flight, I put the idea of Pharos behind me. A few months more passed and I forgot about Pharos. Then articles started to pop up with titles like “Childish Gambino’s Pharos Show is Out of this World” and “What You Missed at Childish Gambino’s ‘Pharos’ Shows This Weekend.” I started devouring every single thing I could about them. Unfortunately for me in a stroke of maybe genius, maybe just an attempt by my old friend Donald to piss me off personally, the concert was to be phone-less. Concert goers were instructed to put their phones in weird bags. Besides the odd troublemaker who managed to grab a stealthy video snap of the Pharos concert, I had to be content with first person accounts. The consensus seemed to be “wow, holy shit my nigga…. really?” Childish Gambino had put together a visual and musical experience that sounded unparalleled.
It’s the only thing in my life to make me regret not being in California. Pharos seems to be an album coming out soon, and a lot of concert goers are worried about how exactly it will translate from a visual, full media experience complete with a geo-capable app to an album with a track list and mp3s. Regardless, Pharos is a musical success, the first for Gambino in many years, and I was ecstatic. And then — around the time of Pharos’ tumultuous success — critics started getting copies of Atlanta’s first four episodes for reviews. Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan on my beloved The Watch podcast started talking about the show like it was going to be the next The Wire. I tried my damnedest not to get my hopes too high but by September 6th it was really too late for that: these first two episodes of Atlanta had to wow or they were going to be a failure.
At 10:59 PM, I let out a great sigh of relief, wow… like really wow. I should’ve known because Donald Glover has rarely let me down, and possibly the only thing to let me down less than Donald Glover in the last few years is FX. A network that has made its name on the incredibly made half-hour drama/sitcoms. Everything from Man Seeking Woman and You’re the Worst to Married and Louie there really isn’t a better place on television for Atlanta to join the ranks. Check out my Next Time On… podcast from this week, when I talk more about the first episodes of Atlanta and the show’s incredible run thus far.