Throughout his entertainment career, Donald Glover has openly refuted the idea that a person must be confined to a single label. He’s tried his hand at many crafts, and although earlier years may very well have seen him pigeonholed as a jack of all trades, his output in 2016 is the clearest argument yet against the idea that he’s a master of none.
The multifaceted nature of his approach has been clear from the beginning. Between 2006 and 2009, he wrote for (and was presented with a WGA award for his contributions to) 30 Rock, released two independent albums under the Childish Gambino moniker, and wrote and starred in the movie Mystery Team alongside the other members of his sketch group Derrick Comedy. By the end of the following year this work had been joined by two more mixtapes, a Comedy Central stand-up special, and a starring role on cult NBC comedy Community.
After signing to Glassnote in 2011, the first studio Gambino album dropped to mixed reviews. I was a huge fan at the time, but looking back it’s hard to disagree with much of the now-infamous Pitchfork review where it was awarded a damning 1.6/10. Camp, I feel, epitomises the current of juvenility that runs through much of Glover’s early work: whilst by no means entirely devoid of quality it was definitely noticeably more sophomoric than what followed.
Mystery Team was funny but far from highbrow entertainment, and the only jokes I can remember from his stand-up are about shit and AIDS. In these early stages of his career it is his work on Community that shines the brightest, and the award nominations and handful of subsequent wins stemming from it were wholly deserved. Those who watched the show saw genuine acting talent, and even though his musical execution during this period was at times misguided, it was clear that the potential for greatness was there.
In 2013, we got the first indications that this potential could indeed be fulfilled. It was announced that FX had picked up a television series that he would write and executive produce, as well as acting in the starring role, and as a result the much-loved character of Troy Barnes was written out of Community halfway through the show’s fifth season. At the back end of the year, the second Gambino album (Because The Internet) was released to a reception generally more positive than that of its predecessor. Lead single 3005 got worldwide airplay and went gold, with the album itself later following suit.
The album was accompanied by a screenplay, making the entire project a highly intriguing conceptual work that evinced a genuine knack for storytelling. It was a real commitment to the move towards the role of ‘creator’, and the first glimpse of the ethos that would underpin all of his subsequent output. Sonically, BTI was leaps and bounds ahead of Camp and, all told, the project in its entirety marked something of a creative maturation. I caught two Gambino live shows during this time and was blown away on both occasions.
This period was closed out by a double part mixtape/EP, with each part – as is the general trend with his music – stylistically very different from what had come before. Although I didn’t much care for STN MTN (Glover pays homage to his hometown with a very southern sound, one I admittedly have never given much time to) I thought the mellower vibes on Kauai set a new benchmark for the quality of his music. By this point, we were in 2014 and there was no new music for a while: presumably due to touring commitments and the production of Atlanta for FX taking up much of his time.
Flash forward two years, to the summer of 2016. After an extended absence from social media, Glover tweeted the download link for a cryptic new app named ‘Pharos Earth’, which turned out to be tied to an event of the same name. Creator had become curator: for three days in September the California desert hosted a concert experience showing off a wealth of new music that, perhaps unsurprisingly by this point, took his sound in a drastically different direction.
Immediately following the Pharos event, Atlanta finally aired after three years in the making. The show – based around coming up in the titular city’s hip hop scene – stars Glover as Earnest Marks, a Princeton dropout-turned rap manager, and was met with near-universal acclaim to the tune of a second series order and two Golden Globe nominations. As if that wasn’t enough, around this time it was announced that the man had been cast in a Star Wars movie. As Lando fucking Calrissian no less. That should tell you everything about how much recognition his acting chops have drawn.
All that remained to be seen was whether album number three could continue the upward trend in musical quality and, by and large, “Awaken, My Love!” delivered on these lofty expectations. Once the initial shock at a Gambino album completely devoid of rapping had subsided, listeners were free to enjoy a record that demonstrated quite rightly that his musical proficiency goes beyond spitting bars. Critics rightly pointed out that at times its 70s funk influences are worn too clearly on its sleeve, but the response was nonetheless positive. Even Pitchfork liked it.
Those who have watched Donald Glover’s career from the beginning will know that his remarkable talent has been evident all along, and that it just needed refining somewhat. In 2016, with the success of his TV show, the warm reception for his latest album, and his transition to the silver screen mainstream, he made the strongest case yet that you should believe the hype.