Donald Glover can easily be considered a modern-day Renaissance man. The man’s claim to fame was earned through his many abilities: acting, writing, producing and comedy. In the music industry, he's considered a talented rapper, singer and songwriter. It’s been almost a decade since he decided to put his name into the Wu-Tang name generator and gave birth to the alter-ego of Childish Gambino. Childish Gambino seemed to be the perfect name for Glover when he first started encompassing the zany lines and pop culture references that found themselves in his raps.
Since then, the aspiring actor has produced seven mixtapes, two EPs and three studio albums. With Gambino’s current album Awaken My Love! debuting No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B charts, it seems like a strange place to hang it up, since most would consider him to have finally broken into the mainstream.
"I sent a long text message to my mom and pop. I got the same speech when I left 30 Rock. My Mom like, 'Why you wanna leave a good job?' My dad like 'Do your thing, boy, don’t stop.'"
This is not the first time — and probably won't be the last time — #DonaldGlover has made headlines with a questionable decision to leave a successful project. Glover’s first controversial departure was when he decided to leave the writers’ table of NBC’s hit show 30 Rock. While a risky move, it certainly paid off as Glover rose in status from behind the scenes to in front of the camera. Glover became part of the ensemble cast of an NBC fan-favorite Community. Glover, being the shark that has to keep swimming forward, decided he would not return when Community was reached its final season. Glover had this to comment on his departure from the show:
"I think everything should have death clauses in them… I'm glad things end because it forces them to progress. It wasn't like I was running away from it, I was just done with it”
Donald Glover was again leaving a job that many would have found themselves complacent in, but Glover had other plans. Glover's rumors of leaving Community initially had people assuming he was leaving to focus solely on the Childish Gambino persona. Instead, he announced he was coming to FX to star in his own project based on his home, Atlanta. The show gained recognition in its first season and Donald Glover won Golden Globes for best show and best actor in a TV comedy or musical.
While all of this upward mobility was occurring, Glover had also taken the time to continue pushing the envelope with his rapper alter-ego Childish Gambino. While hard to image now, Childish Gambino was critically panned from the beginning. Childish Gambino's first mixtapes often featured Glover alongside friends and fellow comedians such as Derrick Comedy member D.C. Pierson. Back then, Glover was not comfortable using his own voice, attempting to fluctuate his voice that drew comparisons to Lil’ Wayne, for which he was hugely criticized.
Glover eventually produced his first album, Camp, in 2011 to mixed reviews. His tough critics slammed heavy, with Forbes writer Leor Galil reducing the album to:
A laundry list of personal pain and some sharply conflicting egotistical boasting, all underscored by an endless stream of forced pop culture references.
Galil continues to diminish Gambino for laying verses over popular tracks — a common practice in the music industry. He lessens his argument for “forced pop culture references” with an example that seems a bit like a nitpick:
Like one "memorable" lyric from "Bonfire": "'You're my favorite rapper now,' Yeah, dude, I better be / Or you can f***** kiss my a**, Human Centipede." (This line is also an excellent example of Glover's nonsense: While straining to reference the infamous horror movie, he overlooks its "medical accuracy" as those involved in the grotesque chain don't have the physical ability to kiss because the villain in the first film removes the lips of those in the centipede)
To be fair, Galil does make some fair criticism of the Camp album, and if you’re interested in the history of Glover’s criticism, it's a good place to start. Personally, while Camp might not be as advanced as his later work, it creates a fun and honest represent of Glover struggling to the top.
Fast forward to now, and Childish Gambino is no longer the niche market rapper for the white kids and black nerds, but someone that increasingly more people get behind. Childish Gambino had, in a sense, proven the haters wrong, and has certainly earned his place — so why stop and announce at the 2017 Governors Ball Music Festival that he’s coming for one last album.
To put it simply: I believe Glover has outgrown the persona. Childish Gambino has always been a personal outlet for Glover, who often acknowledged his critics and haters, shared life experiences, feelings, emotions and experimented with different sounds. From the very beginning, he stood by the fact that he’s different, and in doing so, he became something special. Childish Gambino was a project for Glover to express himself honestly.
Glover is once again taking off to reach new heights as his career opportunities are starting to stack up. Glover seems very proud in continuing Atlanta but also has found himself invited to the adults table, appearing in Spider-Man: Homecoming and also taking up the iconic roles of Lando Calrissian and Simba.
It was apparent that Glover took being Childish Gambino very seriously, responding to suggestions that he tries a more comical approach to his rap career. In the song, "The Last," Gambino says:
“People tell me I should spit under Donald Glover, But I try to keep my real name undercover…. I rap about my life not I’m On A Boat. ‘Cause this joke rap shit’s gotten out of hand, Only ones who do it well’s Lonely Island… Leave the joke raps alone, man, I’m wokin’ here.”
Childish Gambino is just not Childish anymore; he's transcended the persona and doesn't want to lose touch with what truly inspired him to join the industry in the first place. Glover gave this to explain his decision:
“You know, I like it when something’s good and when it comes back there’s a reason to come back, there’s a reason to do that Like I feel like there’s gotta be a reason to do things and I always had a reason to be punk… Being punk just always felt really good to me and we always looked at ‘Atlanta’ as a punk show and I feel like the direction I would go with Childish Gambino wouldn’t be punk anymore."
Glover seems aware of his maturity and is trying to keep his passion from going stale by trying new projects. Donald Glover is a different type of celebrity, and while we must wait in anticipation for his final run as Childish Gambino, I think with the roles he’s received are some indication that his presence in pop culture is not disappearing anytime soon.
“If anything ever happens, want you to know this, I always took the time to smell the roses. And wherever I am, I am doin’ fine, I’m here for a good, not a long, time."
What are your thoughts on Childish Gambino's impending retirement?