Music News

Childish Gambino Breaks the Hip-Hop Mold

Donald Glover has it all wrong.

At least from a historical perspective, anyway. How many times does the actor-turned-musician thing work? Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time," anybody?

But for the most part, Glover doesn't fit the mold. Though he is best known for his role as Troy Barnes on NBC's criminally under-appreciated show Community, he also is a successful stand-up comedian and writer. And he has maintained a steady hip-hop career, rapping as Childish Gambino over samples of Sufjan Stevens and other "indie-tastic" artists (and if you listen closely, you can hear him featured in 30 Rock's breakout Halloween jam "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah").

Glover is funny, for sure. His work a mix of bravado and insecurity, Childish Gambino is a joke. Glover's lyrics are humorous from time to time, and, yeah, he yanked "Childish Gambino" from a Wu-Tang name generator, but Glover takes his music seriously.

"Bonfire" from Childish Gambino's latest album, CAMP Glover, makes it clear: "Man, why does every black actor have to rap some? / I don't know — all I know is I'm the best one . . ." Sure, pretty boy Drake might disagree, but Glover's skills on the mic are impressive even without his television career to boost them. He's been recording since 2002, and while his role on Community and those in films like Mystery Team have helped direct the spotlight, his sound and unique, squeaky voice are as much a part of a genuine shift in hip-hop culture as they are the result of celebrity curiosity.

As hip-hop enters middle age, the Kangol hats and thick gold-rope chains of the '80s, baggy jeans and backwards hats of the '90s, and pimp cups and grills of the '00s have been usurped by skinny jeans and hoodies. Rappers like Kanye West and Lil' Wayne's singular styles have made being an oddball the norm, and young rappers no longer strive to fit into established molds in the likeness of Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Rick Ross.

Acts like Danny Brown (who opens for Childish Gambino at their stop at The Venue Scottsdale), A$AP Rocky, Lil B, Space Ghost Purpp, and punk-rap miscreants Odd Future demonstrate hip-hop's emerging anti-trend. The new crop of rappers give away almost as much music as they sell, dropping indie mixtapes online and generating buzz via the street as well as the blogosphere.

"I'm not trying to come hard / I'm trying to come me / That's why the songs that I used to make I released for free / What's the point of rap if you can't be yourself, huh?" Glover rhymes in "All the Shine" from CAMP. Like the rest of the record, the song features contrasting themes — Glover is willing to rap about racial stereotypes, drug abuse, how he is about "fly girls," and his dick. He's willing to play with the term "hipster," but "hipster rap" doesn't quite fit Glover. After all, Pitchfork, the online bible of music hipness, labeled CAMP "preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware."

The criticism doesn't seem to have deterred anyone from buying into "the Community guy's" sound; his upcoming show is sold out. Perhaps Glover can maintain the momentum — it's probably best to have a back-up plan for when the folks at NBC crush us all and cancel Community.

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Mike Escoto