Childish Gambino finds growth in music
LOS ANGELES — He may be Childish, but Gambino is taking grown-up steps.
A comedian-turned-rapper who broke out as a writer for 30 Rock and star of the quirky sitcom Community, Donald Glover has been rapping under the name Childish Gambino since 2008: releasing mixtapes and EPs, headlining tours and playing festivals, before releasing debut album Camp in 2011.
But his goofy wordplay and plucky persona kept many critics and hip-hop fans at bay. After all, was he just another actor indulging himself with a musical side gig, or could be bring something fresh to the table?
Gambino gave them an answer with his late-2013 release Because the Internet, nominated for best rap album at this past weekend's Grammy Awards. Addressing his personal demons and insecurities through his lyrics, as well as depression and suicidal thoughts in interviews and on Instagram, a more vulnerable and honest artist had arrived — one who could also climb Billboard's Hot 100 with singles V. 3005 (nominated for best rap performance) and I. Crawl, and rack up over 150 million Spotify streams for Internet to date.
"Because the Internet, it was an awakening for a lot of people, and definitely for myself," says Glover, 31, sitting on the deck of a hillside Studio City home with his laptop and a plate of sushi. "I became better at being myself because of (the album) and better at understanding how to get people to absorb your art in this time period."
He does so by meeting his fans where they live — online — and encouraging them to think critically about his work and engage in discussion. Partnering with sites such as Tumblr for events, offering exclusive content on his website and drawing narrative parallels between his music videos, short films and songs, Gambino has inspired waves of fans to dissect his work on Reddit threads and in YouTube comments, searching for deeper meaning.
"I think my biggest challenge is trying to keep my audience open," Glover says. "I don't like when everybody is like, 'Yeah! The answer is 'duh-duh-duh.' It should be a discussion. And the more you can get people involved, the better your project is going to be."
Gambino continues to keep people talking as his music begins to shift away from a more traditional style of rap to something more melodic, singing over the cool grooves of piano-driven single Sober off last fall's Kauai EP. It's a decision he has made semi-consciously as he finds a lot of hip-hop now to be moving away from what it long did best: inspiring social change and provoking thought.
"What I always liked about rap is that it's vegetables covered in candy: You're giving people the news, but it's covered in this sweet, awesome beat, and it makes you feel cool, depending on what kind of artist you are," Glover says. "I just want people to tell the news, and your news, too — your experience and your perspective — but not the news that makes them the most money or is the easiest.
"I might be falling into more melodic stuff because that's what really permeates now. Rap kind of had its time. Rap's not going anywhere, but still, what really permeates changes."
Not to say he is moving away from the genre entirely — he will go wherever he feels he can be most honest in his music and with his fans.
"Hip-hop is always going to be there, just like jazz is always there, but the spirit of it is what I'm chasing," Gambino says. "The spirit of anger or just the spirit of wanting to change things for the better, that's universal. I just want to follow that.
"If it's in rap, I'll go to rap. If it's in pop, I'll go to pop. Whatever that spirit is."