Donald Glover: Hip-Hop's Most Adept Chameleon

Donald Glover (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Glover (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Glover has more titles to his name than you’d likely find in your favorite local celebrity’s Twitter biography—comedian, actor, artist, writer, producer, director, rapper, singer, and songwriter.


The 33-year-old Stone Mountain, Ga., native is able to transition between so many different creative roles thanks in no small part to his ability to make his audience feel exactly what he wants them to feel. He’s not just creating music for the music’s sake, he’s using the circumstances to make his musical career into a spectacle of its own. He controls the narrative.

Glover got his artist alias, Childish Gambino, from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator. In the same vein, his formative years as an emcee were equally whimsical. Glover didn’t have the obscurity that he should have had during his early emceeing years as he was working to become a competent emcee.


His initial projects were given more attention than they deserved due to his involvement in Derrick Comedy and his work as a writer for 30 Rock. He later described his 2005 project, The Younger I Get, as the musings of a “decrepit Drake.” The four projects that followed—Sick Boi, Poindexter, I Am Just a Rapper and I Am Just a Rapper 2—were released between 2008 and 2010.

Highlights of this era of Childish Gambino include a nasally tone, awkward rhyme schemes, poor mixing and mediocre production. Let’s be clear. These projects have not aged well. They appealed to a number of people who could appreciate his potential, his passion and his vision. He won people over with his earnest hunger and passion, despite his amateurish level of skill. We’ll call this his “let’s build” phase.

Glover’s next project, Culdesac, was the beginning of a much more calculated era in his career. It released in July 2010, only about five months after the release of I Am Not a Rapper 2. Despite the short turnaround time between projects, Culdesac was a major turning point for Gambino. He did not achieve mastery, but he came into his own as both a producer and an emcee. It’s no coincidence that the two happened in tandem.

The 16-track project, which was entirely self-produced, was a definitive step up from previous releases due to the synergy between his mellow, singsong delivery style and his pop-friendly brand of production. Tracks like the Adele-sampling “Do Ya Like” hit a sweet spot. With this project, he was able to establish himself as a legitimate artist with household potential.


His March 2011 release, a five-track project called EP, gave us “Freaks And Geeks,” his most technically proficient outing as an emcee, and his most dramatic single up to that point. Gambino was growing by leaps and bounds as an emcee, and he knew it. His narrative of a vulnerable suburban black nerd was replaced by a man who knew he had the juice, thanks to lines such as “Nigga can’t you tell, that my sample of Adele, was so hot, I got these hood niggas blowing up my cell?” Clearly, that sample on “Do Ya Like” from Culdesac was doing numbers.

In November 2011, Gambino came back at us with his debut album, Camp. The 13-track project was co-produced in its entirety by his longtime collaborator, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson.


It should come as no surprise that this was his most musically complex affair. He pieced together more elements than ever before, often haphazardly, and dove into some of the most personal narratives of his career to keep us intrigued in the midst of the chaos.

This project gave us conflicting emotions, and a complex soundscape to match. He adopted the narrative of being a black, nerdy misfit with this project before transitioning back to pushing for street credit with his next project, Royalty.


Remember how excited Gambino was to rap about “hood niggas” blowing up his cell on the EP standout “Freaks And Geeks”? He wasn’t joking. Cue Royalty, with guest features from the likes of Nipsey Hussle, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Bun B and Danny Brown. This is the project where Gambino made a noted push to be more accepted by mainstream hip-hop culture. Not only did he have a lot of big-name features, but he switched up his flow and subject matter to match the occasion. Vulnerabilities and insecurities were pushed to the side on songs with big-name features, as he embraced his more braggadocious side.

The fact that Gambino contended with verses from an aggressive, hungry ScHoolboy Q and a laser-sharp Ab-Soul on “Unnecessary” and didn’t get annihilated in the process is worth talking about.


Two years earlier, Donald Glover was proud to be stringing multiple punchlines together in one verse. Had he attempted this two years earlier, it would have been ugly. At this point in the game, he had the tools in his arsenal to rise to the occasion, and he did, gaining the approval of a number of more “hip-hop purist”-oriented fans in the process.

Satisfied with the acclaim swirling around Royalty, Glover moved into a different phase of his career once more, with a different goal in mind. In the same year that he left Community, he released his second studio album, a very mysterious album called Because the Internet.


Keep in mind that Glover was known primarily as a comedian during the formative years of his career as a musician. After the release of Royalty, he had gained a significant amount of respect for his talent as a musician.

Because the Internet took on a much more experimental, psychedelic feel. Instrumentation was less bright and more nuanced. Subject matter was pushed into more universal territory. While we could feel the ever-present chip on Gambino’s shoulder with previous projects, Because the Internet centered around artistry and pushed hubris to the side. Painting a picture became the focus. Donald Glover wanted to be taken more seriously as an artist, and critics largely did just that.


In October 2014, Gambino came back with a double release, STN MTN/Kauai. It’s important to note that STN MTN was released as a mixtape, while Kauai was released as en EP. While Kauai served as a more polished, introspective dose of his pop-friendly, R&B alter ego, STN MTN was where he set out to make a statement.

The first words on STN MTN? “I had a dream I ran Atlanta, and I was on every radio station.” While the project title clearly shouts out his hometown of Stone Mountain, the project is so Atlanta it’s not even funny.


Gambino teams up with local mainstay Kari Faux for “Small Talk,” references Atlanta strip club Follies during interludes, and raps over a host of instrumentals made iconic by Atlanta artists. While it was more beneficial to focus on the Stone Mountain narrative in earlier, more vulnerable projects like Camp, the more cocky, braggadocious Gambino puts on for Atlanta with confidence this time around.

He sings a beautiful falsetto cover of Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call” on the project, and includes an insightful, entertaining narrative at the end. He mentions, “I was never a thug, and they used to respect me for it. But now the game is fucked up and I gotta Michael Corleone these niggas.”


Michael Corleone is the main protagonist of The Godfather, and he has one key thing in common with Glover; the determination to accomplish his goals by any means, even if it means losing everything in the process and rebuilding from scratch.

In what might be his most drastic transformation to date, Gambino released Awaken, My Love! on Dec. 2, 2016. In the same way that Michael Corleone destroyed everything that stood in his way in The Godfather, Glover destroyed almost every preconception of his artistry with this project, diving deep into influences such as Bootsy Collins, Parliament and Prince to deliver a spacey, soulful ode to different eras of black artistry.


The progression he’s taken as an artist is one of a man equally committed to risk-taking and perfection. Most importantly, he’s dedicated to being an artist whose shifts, whims and phases continue to force us to reconsider his limitations. He chooses to hone in on specific elements such as his emceeing, production, singing and composition, adopting different personas to fit the nature of the chapter of his story that he’s penning in the moment.

When he feels that he’s mastered a particular element of his artistry, he soars with it and embraces the full vision he has for it, as seen in the braggadocious lyricism of Royalty, the bold experimentalism of Because the Internet, the sharp contrast of STN MTN/Kauai, and the transcendental funk of Awaken, My Love!.


When he’s still putting the pieces together, he falls back on the familiarity of his vulnerable, relatable childhood narrative as a black kid who didn’t quite fit in to make himself more relatable. Culdesac and Camp, arguably his two least confidently executed projects, are prime examples of this, as they center around introspection. Glover is one of the most adept musical chameleons in that oftentimes, we don’t even recognize that he’s donned a disguise to shift the way that we receive him.

Is Glover a manipulative mastermind with some sort of dark, underlying motive? Most likely not. Is he a very emotionally intelligent, masterful communicator with a knack for using the reality of his situation and the limitations of his talents to his benefit? Absolutely.


Just remember that in addition to his musical exploits, he will always be an actor, a comedian and a storyteller. His musical career is an integral element of his story as a man and as a creative, and he will always be in complete control of the plot, pulling strings from behind the scenes and watching the audience react from the rafters.

Michell C. Clark is a D.C.-based young lad who is simultaneously eating pizza, talking trash, and shaping his future.

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Great article. Camp is my favorite Gambino album. Lights Turned On favorite song.