By Tre Johnson
Donald Unchained: After Years of Trying to Define Himself, is Donald Glover Finally Free?
Did he change or did we change? After years of wearing the influences of so many artists and times, Donald Glover, might have finally shaken free of expectations that shackled his earlier years and landed somewhere new: creative freedom.
This year’s best TV show Atlanta and his latest album Awaken, My Love! feel like the most mature works he’s done to date. Has he finally arrived?
Bro Rape of the Black Republican: 2006-2013
Those locks have been mystifying at times. A decade ago Glover initially entered the entertainment fray via “Derrick Comedy”; a sketch comedy group made up of Donald and his friends during the early 2000s. The troupe was a sensation that cumulated in a cult film, Mystery Team, but their climb to popularity was rooted in irreverent, squirmy sketches that have painfully aged in a short amount of time. Two sketches—“National Spelling Bee”, where Glover plays a spelling bee judge asking teenage contestants one-by-one to spell “nigger-faggot” in the final round of the competition, and the viral sketch “Bro Rape", a sketch done in the vein of Chris Hansen’s NBC “To Catch A Predator” series, replacing unsuspecting minors with college boys—are muddled, confusing and unflattering for Glover.
“Bro Rape” is especially problematic as the sketch has a disturbing motif around using the black penis as the dominant/-neering threat in every situation, opening with Glover playing a cap-wearing, Axe-spraying, beer-guzzling “bro” raping his white bro-friend after swigging some liquor, and as each (white) predator (including a then-unknown Bobby Moynihan, a current SNL cast member) gets subjected to a bag search by the sketch’s stand-in for Hanson, they all reveal that in addition to six-packs and video game consoles in their bags, their sexual weapon of choice every time is a black dildo.
Looking back now, the “Derrick Comedy” years haven’t aged well, while being appropriately aged for the times the group operated in; with their approach to subjects like rape, child abuse, and hip-hop, Derrick Comedy tapped into the same humor vein of more popular contemporaries of that time--the Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Will Ferrell era that used the traditional “alpha male” to explore and deconstruct the more sensitive society around them. A stylized brand of humor intending to make these males sympathetic and charming, while still being repugnant all at the same time. This was a popular device used in movies made during this time--Superbad, Knocked Up, and the 40 Year Old Virgin are all great examples--as these predominantly (white) male-centric stories took the route of placing them at the emotional center with many of the female and minority cast members relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. It’s easy to see the co-mingled culture of these times when looking at “Bro Rape” or “Keyboard Kid”, or “Wink”--which makes interracial porn a go-to joke three times in a 3:45 min sketch and a rape joke--as a necessary tincture to get to the more inclusive times we find ourselves in now, but folks new to the Atlanta version of Glover might find marrying these images and politics squirmy and incongruous while others already familiar with his earlier work might gloat as they point you towards curated sources like this. Much of this is what makes it hard to dismiss Glover’s work during the “Derrick Comedy” years as a time-capsuled miscues as this rise didn’t happen just through comedy.
In 2011 under his rap/singer moniker ‘Childish Gambino’, Glover released Camp, an album sonically done in the manner of his stand-up (in 2010 he starred in “Weirdo”, his stand-up Comedy Central special); it was crass, brash and bratty, with raps that seemed to sneer at the audience and the art form more than embrace it. It was also wildly misogynistic and racial in its content, with a familiar resurfacing of Glover’s preoccupation with mixed-race sex, this time squarely with references to Asian woman in some of the album’s tracks. While those traits aren’t unfamiliar in the genre, combined with Glover/Gambino’s punchline-style delivery and cartoonish voice the songs have a caustic tone that has more than a few lines laced with sexual malice, fetishism and at times, violence.
The music here is angry, and while Glover still jumps in-and-out of deciding if he’s Gambino or not, many of the outsider-insider references in the album make these entries feel biographic.
Listening to Camp is essentially listening to a bro playlist: an insecure, overachiever convinced that the world is his plaything. Listening to the album again now—with its fetishism of Asian women; it’s calculating predation regarding women and sex; it’s gaudy attempts to raise up his manhood as an outsider, insecure man taking revenge now that’s he arrived—would be a welcome soundtrack on January 20th.
At the tail-end of this period Donald Glover appeared in the first two episodes of the second season of Girls as Hannah’s latest boyfriend; an Ivy-educated Black Republican. The appearance was essentially just that; a 2-episode cameo that opened with his character straddled in bed by Hannah, and closed with them breaking up on his couch after having an argument about race, politics and creative expression.
Dunham, in doing press for these episodes and Glover’s character, insisted that this had nothing to do with the criticism (except when it was) about the lack of diversity in Girls’ first season, telling in an episode titled “It’s About Time”, and presented as an opportunity to use Glover’s appearance to “make a statement” about the show’s and the creator’s comfort around inclusion.
Because the Internet Demanded It: 2013 to Present
The prior bro years had served as an important launch pad for Glover and the succeeding period saw his celebrity go viral with his freestyle raps on hip-hop talk radio shows like “Hot 97” and “Sway in the Morning” to his heartfelt, emotional covers of Tamia and PM Dawn, painting a more emotionally complex picture of the artist.
It was also a darker period for Glover, too; a series of cryptic Instagram posts detailing what many believed to be not only depression, but also suicidal thoughts, and so when Because the Internet released near the end of 2013 it in many ways felt like a capstone on an emotionally raw year, and a slightly evolved departure from Camp: now firmly on the “inside”, the album suggested the artist was now fighting to get back out now that life was populated full of hangers-on, nemeses and doubts about love, relationships and privacy that came with fame.
Much of this stretch felt like Glover trading off those bro years for something more akin to Drake, who similarly went from a cartoonish outsider sound in Thank Me Later to a darker, nice-guy pessimistic worldview that made the darker, moodier Take Care. Balancing Because….came 2014’s Kauai, a sunnier, more romantic EP that zoomed out of the voyeuristic worlds of the first two albums and while brief, felt more intimate and maybe even a bit more honest.
Yet still, the irreverent echoes of his prior works still shone through in music videos like “Sober”, where a lust-at-first-sight Glover essentially re-enacts Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video as he and woman wait on fast food orders in a local restaurant, and Because track “Sweatpants”, where a diner setting steadily populates a restaurant of Donald Glovers. Both pieces are higher quality than Derrick Comedy—we’re a long way from “National Spelling Bee” now—but there’s still a bit of bro-like whimsy that undercuts these music videos. There’s also a bit of disappointment in these videos—they both essentially end with Glover/Gambino alone—and so somehow feel vulnerable and douchey at the same time, while managing to showcase the tangible talents (singing, dancing and rapping) and the intangible ones too (endearing, affable, charming) that makes these somewhat surreal music videos confessional and magical.
In a sense, these confessionals paved the way for his two latest works this year: the magical absurdist comedy-drama Atlanta on FX and the aforementioned Awaken, My Love!. Atlanta has been a revelation with near universal praise, opening Glover’s mind in a way that we only saw in glimpses in his other works. Atlanta, following a trio of men dependent on each other to get ahead in an Atlanta filled with invisible cars, black children in whiteface and bougie, Jack-and-Jill style parties hosted by a “woke” white man and the most compelling transracial person since Rachel Dolezal. The show strives to be something like its creator: unbound by definition and deeply contemporary. It’s wildly black and rash with insecurities; from Van’s professional and personal ones; to Paperboi’s validation; to Earn’s quest to do something, anything right and questioning his competence at every turn while trying to maintain a controlled façade.
Much of Atlanta feels like the mindscape; magic abounds in every episodes, and the show’s resistance to shoot in more showy sections of Atlanta gives it an authenticity in its absurdity because a rapping, cursing kid who is business partner to an internet entrepreneur or an Asian-run underground enterprise could all seem to happen only in a section far away from the white, mainstream gaze. Like Glover, Atlanta makes good on a creative economy outside of the margins; yes, everyone hustles in this Atlanta, but to some degree, everyone’s making it. It’s also unglamorous in the way that the behind the scenes creation of art tends to be—we’re lucky to watch these characters trade and toil their way to happiness and the show rewards you with an intimacy with these characters without mocking them. Camp would be proud.
The year is closing with Awaken, My Love! though, meaning that, once again, Donald Glove slips on Childish Gambino’s tight-fitting mask to update us on how he sees the world. Awaken likely took a lot of fans by surprise as it accelerates the voice and content of Kauai and lands in squarely in a more intimate, psychedelic place that channels P-Funk, Prince, paternity and popularity. Gambino’s voice glides through channels of auto-tune, exasperation and newfound confidence. It’s a more mature for someone at the height of creativity given that Glover is now a father, too.
These constant swings all make sense though; three years ago he sat cross-legged in moccasins on Arsenio Hall’s couch during his short-lived revival teasing the next three years. Asked about his decision to leave Community, Glover looked agitated at the outside scrutiny, but at peace with the inward decision as he answered Hall’s question. “We gotta move on”, Glover shared, “it doesn’t make sense to stay here.”
Tre Johnson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He writes on race, culture, politics and pop culture.