I was seventeen and I hadn’t really known Donald Glover. I didn’t know what he was actually about or why kids in my high school were talking about him. I knew him for Community, though I hadn’t been watching the show for him. I was a The Soup watcher and Joel McHale was the main appeal. My focus on Glover didn’t start till one of my friends in my AP Chinese class had me watch one of Glover’s videos. It was back when he was on Derrick Comedy, you might know it. “Girls Are Not To Be Trusted” was the title—we were two years late to the game of Glover. It had me rolling, and though now of days I’ll look at it and see the bad production or the dated resolution, it’ll still have me rolling.
I started watching other Derrick Comedy videos, and though my interest in the videos faded, Donald Glover stayed in the foreground. Around a month later that same friend from AP Chinese showed me Childish Gambino, the rapper persona of Donald Glover. And of course the song she showed me was, “Freaks and Geeks”. It was the moment he started to really circulate the media. I listened to his song and actually enjoyed it. Rap hadn’t been my arena in previous years where Lil Wayne’s “Duffel Bag Boy”, Drake’s “Forever”, or any of Jay Z’s songs sounded weird coming out the mouth of an oreo. The time where rap was too black and fast and I was too slow for the culture—too sheltered or prudish or whatever kept me looking from the outside, there were too many possibilities.
There was something about “Freaks and Geeks” that I just liked, and no before you get into your whole culture reading of it all, it was before I thought of the whole concept of being black and a nerd, before I had a conception of my racial identity, and before I came to terms with the black community I felt shunned from. “Freaks and Geeks” was a funny song, it made references, it was cool. I enjoyed a song that made references to The Little Mermaid, Derrick Rose, E.E. Cummings, and The Big Bang Theory (before it was thought of as black face for nerds…which that phrase/ general idea is problematic, but that’s for another day). There was something about comparing vagina to Batman villains that was fun. It was something I hadn’t experienced with most rap, and for people I knew, the song was more true for me.
The summer after I graduated high school, I looked into Gambino’s older music. I had been called, “not a true fan”, by some kid because I only really knew some of The EP and the songs: “Break AOTL” and “Do Ya Like”—which would actually make me not much of a fan, but nonetheless, I felt some salt. When it came to quite a few artists, I’d stick with a few songs and then never explore deeper. I only really knew a few songs from mainstream rappers, and my “white boy” music was limited to a few All Time Low, The Fray, and Coldplay songs (from the first two bands I listed, you can tell that I used to be super sad boy. I’m only sad boy now—no super.). That’s when I encountered Culdesac. With an artsy cover of a drawn neighborhood street fair there were demons attempting to escape. Songs about all of Glover’s insecurities—all of my insecurities. That I wouldn’t succeed. That I wasn’t accepted. But there were pickups and motivations about dedication to the craft and lines that cheered me up like, “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit” from the song, “Let Me Dope You” (the line is actually a sample from Lil John in the song “Damn” by Youngbloodz, but that’s neither here nor there…well kind of. If I wanted to get into the dynamic of having this quite nerd labeled rapper with the demographic of middle class white kids weaving aforementioned rap stylings with more southern/ “gangster” rap stylings, then sure—it’s more here than there). It was a mixtape about a boy who sounded weird or off in his genre and felt weird in his skin, just as I would later sound weird as an article dropping, em dash fan, writer who likes writing slice of life superhero stories.
It was freshman year of college (or my first year. Why is the word freshman offensive? I kind of missed that.) and university life took some getting used to. As a introverted nerd not equipped with the best of social skills, making friends and also figuring myself out was hard. I wanted to rush the process of figuring out a role in the world, but also wanted to be more than what I was. I wanted to be cool. I acted stupid to gain friends. I broke up with my girlfriend. Camp came out. And I’ve never loved an album more than I’ve loved Camp. Most would call it too campy (haha. Right?) or say that it was too much of a victory lap for an unproven rapper, but that album came to me at the right time. Tales of an ex-loser (well still loser) who’s on the up and up, yet still hasn’t found full happiness. It crafted a mood (might I say an aesthetic?) of superfluous fun times and more of my insecurities where I felt better about some aspects of life, but had to ask more questions. What am I to the black race? How do I fit in? Am I happy? etc, but then there was “LES”, and my favorite lines, “I’m a mess. That don’t rhyme with shit. It’s just true.” I didn’t have the answers, and understood that I was a mess or screwed up, and it just helped to know that someone I respected felt the same way about himself.
Gambino started to become a guide for me. He was a role model. I had an interview for a promotional video for my middle school (I had just finished my first year of college), and I quoted him during it. My mother started to listen to him because I did. His music comforted me when I’d feel emotionally shut down from arguments with my father. His music helped me release and stop tears. It helped me (still helps me) when it comes to dealing with crushes (a few of his songs are helping right now) or dealing with any emotions beyond monotone expression, rage, and the urge to be wittily sarcastic. And though his music was a help and Gambino was my guide, there were quite a few people who disagreed with me loving the music. People had said that I had changed or that I listened to him too much, which, okay, I did play him too much, and I did change, but I had to question why people had a problem with it. To me, my change felt necessary. And if that alienated former friends and burned bridges, that was fine. Was it sad? Yeah. But it was a sadness I chose.
During junior year there was Because The Internet (yes I’m skipping Royalty. I’ll get to that.). I was excited for the album, but was a little hesitant because his mixtape in between Camp and Because The Internet was Royalty. My problem with that mixtape was that it felt like Gambino was making music that people wanted him to make something more like the rest of the mainstream rap. It felt like I was losing him in the same way woke kids probably felt they were losing Kanye. I was starting to miss the old Gambino, and he had only been in my life for three years. At first I was iffy with Because The Internet because it felt like it’d be the same as Royalty, and it just didn’t feel or sound like Camp or any of Gambino’s previous albums. After listening to it on repeat for two days, it started to sound better. I appreciated BTI more after I found that there was a screenplay that went with the album. It was experimental and I enjoyed the humorous points of the song, “Sweatpants” and “The Party”. As I got to junior year spring semester, I dug the more depressing songs of the album, “Flight of the Navigator”, “Urn”, “No Exit”.
By senior year I reached a point of culminating all the albums in order to fit a mood. My friends would ask why I’d listen to a whack rapper. The question always came with a comparison to Kendrick or Drake, which I understood…it was just that Gambino fit me more. He’s been one of the only constants in my life. So what’s my point? Was this merely about my love for a rapper? Was it a piece about how I felt similar to him? Is this propaganda for him. I don’t know. It’s just a piece about a guy who listens to another guy. Anyways, I’ll end this piece with one of my favorite Childish Gambino songs (I don’t feel like ending this with “LES”): “The Last”.