January 2012

Cultural Reverence

Whether in song or in stand-up, Community star Donald Glover is always watching

DANIEL
SIEGAL

PHOTO: DOUG INGLISH

Donald Glover may be known for portraying ex-jock Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, but he’s become an L.A. renaissance man in the last few years. While he’s been plenty busy navigating the waters of TV writing, stand-up and acting, Glover, 28, somehow found time to launch a career as rapper Childish Gambino, and it’s now moving full-sail.

“I kind of noticed it on the IAMDONALD tour, where I did half stand-up, half music. Like, people were so ready for the music,” says Glover. “We played this joke video to transition into it, and people were already cheering and screaming, ‘Where’s Childish Gambino?!’ ”

Glover’s first commercial album, Camp, on Glassnote Records, debuted at number 11 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at two on the magazine’s hip-hop/R&B albums chart. Quite a shift for a Georgia guy who found his Holly-wood niche not through MC battles but by writing for The Daily Show and 30 Rock—the latter winning him a piece of the 2008 Writers Guild Award for Best Comedy Series. His fans are fevered and far-reaching, even furthering his online campaign—albeit unsuccessful—to audition for this summer’s Spider-Man.

Musical success hardly came overnight. Glover built his Gambino fanbase from the ground up, digitally offering three albums, two mixtapes and an EP over three-plus years through his Website—for free. Still, he says he couldn’t have written a better script for the ascendance of his alter ego.

“A lot people think I have some master plan, but I really don’t,” Glover says. “Comedy was on a whim, acting was on a whim—not that I didn’t care about those things, but it was just like, Let me try this.

In fact, the Childish Gambino moniker came about because Glover was messing around with the Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator online and just liked the sound of it.

Camp was produced with Ludwig Göransson, the composer on Community. Throughout the album, Glover—rather, freewheeling profligate Gambino—uses his exhaustive pop-culture knowledge to address the tensions of a self-proclaimed nerd who made good but still feels like an outsider.

On the first single, “Bonfire,” he preemptively fires shots at both critics and competitors: “Why does every black actor gotta rap some? / I don’t know, all I know is I’m the best one.”

Throughout the raps, his disparate tastes shine through, as he drops the likes of Truffaut’s 400 Blows into a diss line. But Glover isn’t worried about alienating his devotees. Not when the Internet has broken down the barriers between rap and rock—or stand-up and sitcoms, for that matter.

The approach is working, as his appropriately punch line–laden rhymes have garnered acclaim from not just indie-crossover-friendly Paste (“Other rappers get clever...but they’re not chronically, constantly, even suicidally clever the way Glover is) but XXL and The Source, hard-core keepers of hip-hop’s flame. And while skeptics watch and wait, Glover won’t change his style to gratify someone else. “Only dummies are like, ‘Rap is supposed to be this,’ ” he says. “I just wanted to rap about my neuroses for me. I don’t play a gigantically different role. As long as it’s honest—it’d be different if I was rapping like early N.W.A or something, but it’s not that.”

Currently, he’s enjoying a rare period of repose. With Camp released, his Sign Up Tour finished and season three of Community wrapped, Glover is taking time to focus on some projects he’s “not at liberty to discuss,” while spitballing ideas for the next album. But the guy won’t sit still for long, as he kicks off the Camp Gambino tour in March. Just don’t expect that to be his only project between now and then.

“I don’t think I’ll ever kiss goodbye to anything I do,” he says. “For now, I’m going to keep doing whatever begs my attention more at the time.”

DANIEL SIEGAL is a small-town reporter at the La Cañada Valley Sun by day and keeps an eye on L.A.’s indie scene by night.