Self-proclaimed ‘son of Kanye’ Donald Glover is nothing if not an all-rounder; with his proverbial finger in an impressive number of artistic pies, it seems that anything with his name attached can expect some level of success. Starting off in comedy sketch group Derrick, working with Tina Fey as a writer for 30 Rock, blagging a half-hour Comedy Central special for his stand-up, establishing himself as an actor on Dan Harmon’s Community and creating music under the moniker Childish Gambino (though he insists that he doesn’t see himself as a rapper), it’s unlikely that you won’t have come across at least one of his ventures at some point.
What is particularly noteworthy about Glover’s projects is the ease with which he is accepted as a legitimate contributor to these varying mediums – as consumers, we love to pigeonhole, and he very much flies in the face of this. There is a reason for this, of course, and one that has become clearer since the release of his second indie label full-length Because The Internet.
There is an honesty to everything Glover does. His art is very much an extension of self, without exception; even his Community character, Troy Barnes, evolved to reflect his real-life counterpart more. It was apparent on album Camp, something he wrote “for [his] thirteen year old self”, though the insecurity and self-consciousness he mentions in interviews nowadays shines through in his audible attempt to make the album perfect. This believable factor is likely why we’re happy to let him float between disciplines – we can recognise the Donald Glover persona through them all. Come the time of Because The Internet, he seemed to have realised that the secret wasn’t in perfection but in the honesty he had honed, and thus set out to create something a little more “ignorant”.
And honest it was. A few Instagram uploads of brief confessions scrawled on hotel paper set the tone for BTI; from “I’m afraid I’m here for nothing” to “I didn’t leave Community to rap. I don’t wanna rap. I wanted to be on my own.” to mentions of fighting his label to release the record in December for people to have “when everything slows down and quiet. So you can start over”, the internet became saturated with concerns and debates over Glover’s emotional well-being. Responses ranged from accusations of a publicity stunt to interviewers asking if he was depressed.
Oftentimes, honest art stems from a certain kind of narcissism. Maybe this is the case for Glover – and even if it was, I don’t intend for it to be framed as a criticism – but his main output in the aftermath of his Instagram activity was to ascertain that if he’s depressed, then we all are. He thinks we all feel this way, at least some of the time, and that we’re not talking about it enough. That at a time when we are more connected than we ever have been before – y’know, because of the internet – he’s falling into feelings of isolation, and that he doesn’t feel that it’s at all exclusive to him.
Whether you agree with him or not, and regardless of whether or not you find the nature of his output pretentious (another worry he acknowledged), this gave way to what is less of a second album and more of an art project, undeniably. A short film written and starred in by Glover, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, was released prior to the album. It remains open to interpretation, but it seems to convey ideas of detachment and feeling lost; Glover noted that the album would make more sense in the context of the film.
Leading up to the record’s December 10th release, Glover organised impromptu listening parties in public parks by announcing the event a couple of hours beforehand via Twitter. Allowing people to show up, hear the new songs and ask question was another way of the artist connecting with his fans and giving them reason to invest in his brand. See, Donald Glover doesn’t believe in the worth of an album by itself and he doesn’t think it’s enough. He believes that music should be free (because, well, it essentially is these days) and that industry attempts to battle this are futile. In the face of this, he tried to create a world that “people can live in for as long as they want”. So, naturally, the album was accompanied by a 72-page screenplay.
Initially posted online and eventually distributed in fully-binded physical form with some vinyl releases, the screenplay revolves around The Boy, a born-rich character who struggles with feelings of isolation and frustration with what goes on around him. Glover also shot and released very short scenes from the script, near snapshots, which coincide with songs from the album. Some of the characters are based on people in his real life – art as extension of self.
The story certainly adds more depth to the ‘world’ Glover carved with BTI and feels disjointed enough to reflect the themes occuring throughout his other output of the time, and it helps some of the songs take on a more literal and easy-to-digest form, but the album is a feat in itself. It is dense and as far from immediate as a great record can get – it is not an exaggeration to say it really takes months for the surprises that pop up on every listen to become few and far between. It is, however, wholly rewarding. Musically it is surreal, sometimes messy and consistently gripping. His rapping has come on leaps and bounds since Camp and, along with his ever-witty lyricism, seems less forced. Glover has often talked of the link between comedy and hip hop, but the consistent push for a punch line which was present on previous releases has faded and made way for stream-of-consciousness level honesty (though it’s difficult to miss ‘Got no patience ’cause I’m not a doctor/Girl why is you lyin’, girl why you Mufasa’). It is, as the title suggests, an album about the internet, but only in the context of connection. It oozes self-awareness and existentialism.
Following the release of the album, Gambino and his posse embarked on the Deep Web Tour. Showcasing impressive technological and graphics work, even being designed alongside an interactive app through which the audience could interact with the set-up, the idea was for nothing in the world of Because The Internet to make sense without the rest. Whether purely out of desire to create something bigger than an album, or desire to convince people to invest in him as an artist – probably both – Glover proved himself as a creative.
There is speculation that his sullen, morose appearance in interviews since the birth of the project is part of his playing The Boy, merely an act as part of the Because The Internet era as he states that we’re unhappy because we’re trying to follow a pattern laid out when the world was different; that he feels lost and empty. While probably partly the case, it’s unlikely that there is much separation between The Boy and Glover himself.
He has learned to exploit vulnerability and his art is all the better for it.