We live in confusing times. That is an understatement, but no less of a true statement. Rights have been proved wrong, ups have been declared downs, truths have been flipped to falsehoods. You could be forgiven for feeling unsettled on a daily basis. There is no shame in that. But if we were to take a minute, take just a brief respite from the daily roller coaster of mind-numbing confusion, to focus on just one morsel of confusion, I’d encourage us to cast a confused eye towards the musical career of Childish Gambino. Hyperbole aside, it’s become one of the more confusing things out there today.
Let us start here: are you a fan of Childish Gambino?
Given his discography, this should be a relatively straight forward question to answer. He has released enough material to allow you to either align yourself with him or distance yourself from him. Yet also given his discography, it’s not a straight forward question to answer. Gambino started out as more a traditional hip hop artist, slowly drifted towards a hybrid form of emo rap, became a stylistic contemporary of Chance the Rapper and then a student of Funkadelic. That last move, coming courtesy of his 2016 Grammy-nominated album Awaken, My Love!, was a clear the lane move on his part, a declaration of seriousness from an artist, who from a musical stand point, had only appeared to have one foot in and one foot out. He was also Donald Glover, up and coming comedic talent. He was a two sport star on the come up. Yet with every two sport athlete, one sport is always the dominant one and one sport is the hobby. With Glover/Gambino, music seemed like the hobby.
Hobbies are great. Everyone should have one. This is not an attack on hobbies.
Prior to Awaken, My Love!, the fact that Gambino and music was a tourist destination for Glover was totally fine. Nothing he had done was really all that remarkable and if you were cool with it, you were cool with it. If you weren’t, no big deal. He was great on Community. But then things got interesting for Glover and in turn, the perception was forever altered. First it was his television show, Atlanta. He wrote it, he sometimes directed it and was on paper, the star of it. On the acting side of his ledger, the notes were now written in all caps. The dude had helped create something revolutionary and the talk of his prowess that existed in the margins of his reputation now made sense. He would be taken seriously from here on out. Then he got the Lando gig, Atlanta kept things solid in it’s second season and cover stories would follow. Donald Glover was a force.
Awaken, My Love! made noise upon it’s release, but truth be told, if someone told you it felt like a Funkadelic rip off, you didn’t have much of a case in terms of refuting their argument. Why? Because it did. And while yes, the album isn’t bad by any means, it’s also occasionally hard to hang with. Much of the album seems to fit a certain mood, although that mood is tough to nail down. The album drifts and meanders, spacing out in indulgent fantasies of whimsy, falsetto and reverb-drenched guitars. The album’s best song is “Redbone.” It was one of the best songs of the year and lived on to fight another day in 2017, when it was featured prominently in Get Out. “Redbone” was Glover’s musical version of the first season of Atlanta. It showed he was capable of much more than previously thought.
Then he dipped out for a while, went to space, did the Star Wars thing and let the buzz around him grow. In the absence of new material, the attention now being given to his music on the heels of “Redbone” made people reevaluate his earlier work and speculate about future projects, the next one which would reportedly be his last under the moniker of Childish Gambino. Would whatever comes next be along the lines of his earlier work, on the level of his most recent work, a mixed drink of somewhere in between or something entirely different? Much like the feeling present at the start of every episode of Atlanta, no one really knew what to expect.
Uncertainty be damned, no one could have expected “This Is America.”
Dropped on the same night he pulled double duty on Saturday Night Live, both the song and the video effectively hijacked the internet in the days that followed, whether it was effusive praise, tales of repeat viewings and/or listens, necessary contextual readings and unnecessary contextual analysis. Suddenly, the accolades that had been reserved for Glover’s work on the screen were now being co-opted and used to describe his music. He was on the level of Kendrick, he was speaking truth to power, he was giving the resistance the song they craved to keep on trucking during the time of Trump. The word “genius” was being thrown around a lot. The hype train had left the station and was barreling down the tracks without someone responsible behind the wheel.
The specter of “This Is America” loomed so large though, that lost in it’s shadow was another song Gambino performed on Saturday Night Live, the song he performed during his first musical spot, which is the one that traditionally a little more high profile. “Saturday” was light and breezy. It sounded like a Pharrell outake, which isn’t a bad thing per say. A Pharrell outtake is probably better than what most people leave in. The song was enjoyable enough, but certainly nothing worthy of a week of internet dominance and genius speculation.
But “Saturday” was left in the dust and the populace moved forward, comfortable ascribing the genius tag to Childish Gambino. Based on what, though? One great song (“This Is America,) one really good song (“Redbone,) and one pretty solid album (Awaken, My Love!) No one is taking shots at “Sober” or “Bonfire,” but no one is clearing out the corner office for them. The reaction to “This Is America” quickly became a test case in recency bias run amuck. It’s possible to say two things at once: “This Is America” is a near perfect song, but Childish Gambino was not a near perfect artist. He was an artist with tremendous potential, but it was foolish to say that with one great song, that potential had been fully realized.
The only counter argument that could be made by the Childish Gambino is a Genius Camp is that “This Is America” was a harbinger of things to come from him. What was yet to come from him could be traced back to Awaken, My Love! and “This Is America” more than anything released previously. As for “Saturday,” that was but a blip on the radar and something for the folks in the cheap seats. We would know sit and wait for what would come next, something that would surely rival “This Is America.”
Yet what has followed “This Is America” has unfortunately skewed more closely to “Saturday” than “This Is America.” Earlier this month, Gambino released Summer Pack, which featured two songs, “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer.” The good news is that neither song is bad. The bad news is that neither one even hints at the originality of “This Is America.” The songs are serious retorts to the genius argument, especially because unlike “Saturday,” neither have been overshadowed anything. They’re on their own, left to face the public themselves, and in light of that, their blanket blandness and generic appeal is all that more apparent and obvious. Again, these aren’t bad songs. But neither were some on the songs on “Because The Internet.” They’re just not the songs by someone that should be considered a musical genius on the level of Kendrick Lamar.
As of now, we don’t know when Gambino’s next and final album will be released and there is certainly a chance that when it does come out, it could be more “This Is America” than Summer Pack. If that happens, great! But will it happen? Hard to say, especially if you look at the entirety of Gambino’s career, even more so if you look at it like a athlete’s career. He’s the ball player who is a career .280 hitter who has one season where he manages to hit .310, then follows that up with a career year, hitting .340, 35 home runs and driving in 95 runs. He’s touted as the next big thing, gets the cover of Sports Illustrated, and heading into the next season, is featured prominently as a face of the game. But that season features a crashing back to earth so to speak, with his average falling back to the norm and a return to the numbers he posted earlier in his career. It’s something you see in football a lot, especially with running backs. They make some noise, then a lot of noise, then are rarely heard from again (and eventually end up on the Jets.)
Again, this could all be for nothing and Gambino/Glover is more than talented enough to prove to be an exception. He could maybe be dropping one more Gambino album, filled with songs like “Summertime Magic” and saving more “This Is America” level material for his first release under his real name. Perhaps he has another chapter of his musical career ahead of him, this time under Donald Glover, as opposed to Childish Gambino. It’s something to consider at the very least.
Something else to consider is that “This Is America” was that one rogue season, that anomaly that bears little resemblance to what came before and what followed. It may never be a height that Gambino, Glover or some other name he chooses to go by, reaches again. There’s no shame in that. He dropped a once in a lifetime song, a song that took over a country and will no doubt be one of the more essential songs of the year. Any artist would kill to do something like that and more than a few artists, even those who have been successful, have never been able to do what Gambino did with “This Is America.”
It’s just something he may never do again and we’ll have to be okay with that.