It’s because of the Internet that we know about Childish Gambino, the rap persona of musician/writer/actor Donald Glover. His new album, "Because The Internet," pokes fun at the absurdity of this fact, of lives, habits and careers transformed by click bait and the instant gratification that goes along with it. But the album is also a package that showcases Glover’s ambivalence with succeeding on a medium that he distrusts. He’s acknowledging the democratizing power of the Internet but, as someone who’s "made it," he’s asking himself and his audience: Now what?
"At this point with the Internet," he recently told Vice, "it feels like we’re just giving a handgun to an infant and going, ‘Don’t shoot yourself."
But, metaphorically at least, Glover is shooting himself. There’s pain and loneliness on this album that it’s easy to relate to because it’s what we feel whenever we’re overwhelmed by our inboxes or make little deals with ourselves to avoid logging onto Facebook. "Because the Internet mistakes are forever/but if we fuck up on this journey, at least we’re together," Gambino raps on the track "Life: The Biggest Troll."
Like many of us, Gambino seems to have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. That hate is on display in the beginning of the album. On "Crawl," its second track, Gambino pokes fun at the tiresome memes of black folks made famous by their videotaped moments in distress–be they Charles Ramsey or Antoine Dodson–with the line "What’s the rationale/they wanna smoke niggas when they black n’ mild/ so we act it out." That sentiment that grows only more pointed in the next track, "Worldstar," a reference to World Star Hip-Hop, home to ratechtry and senseless violence, often starring black folks, like the Sharkeisha fight video that recently went viral. The song is punctuated by audio clips of fights that have appeared on the site, but is also a stinging indictment of the people who profit off of their moments in the spotlight, including Gambino himself, who raps, "So record this/Ain’t nobody can ignore this/I’m more-or-less a moral-less individual makin’ movies with criminals trying to get them residuals."
And one can only assume that his residuals have been great. Outside of just making rap, Gambino has busied himself with creating his own artistically driven media empire. The Stone Mountain, Ga., native first gained prominence in 2005 when, as an undergrad studying dramatic writing at NYU, he was discovered by Tina Fey. He went to work writing for NBC’s "30 Rock." Along the way he kept at making music, a hobby he picked up during his sophomore year in college. (His stage name comes from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator.) Eventually he left NBC with Tina Fey’s blessing, hopped in a car and drove cross country to try his luck in Los Angeles. There, he quickly nabbed the role of popular jock Troy Barnes on NBC’s "Community." In recent months, Glover announced his departure from "Community," put out an experimental film, and started work on a new television project with FX on his hometown of Atlanta. Throughout all of this, he was earning fans by tweeting a lot and doing live stand-up comedy shows, things that have given him an unprecedented degree of artistic freedom.
"Because of Twitter, people don’t go to my shows expecting Troy to rap," Glover told the Village Voice in 2011, a reference to problems other performers have faced when trying out different mediums.
But it’s his rapping that has been most controversial. While his fun-loving, hipster-friendly persona got him enough attention for fans to campaign on his behalf to become the next Spider Man, his 2011 album "Camp" showed that he was far from a superhero. The album was filled with crude references to his fetishization of Asian women, references that seemed beneath someone of Gambino’s artistic caliber (After all, this is the same guy who would go on to post a series refreshingly honest private fears on Instagram). "This Asian dude/I stole his girl/And now he got that Kogi beef," Gambino bragged on "Bonfire." "I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect./Something crazy and Asian: Virginia Tech," he rapped four tracks later on "Backpackers." In the ensuing Internet chatter, disappointed fans–mostly those of color–reminded Glover that black artists are perfectly capable of practicing white supremacy and that people who talk about race don’t necessarily have a lot that’s useful to say on the matter. Glover never publicly addressed the controversy, but in an ironic twist, addressed his critics on the same album when he rapped on "Backpackers," "Fuck the cool kids/Not Chuck English/But people who think that hatin’ on me makes them distinguished/… ‘I wrote on rape culture my junior year at Brown/So I’m allowed to say what all his raps are about/You better shut your mouth/Before I fuck it/You really hate my lyrics?/Or Kid Cudi’s."
"Because the Internet" is a much more evolved piece of work than Gambino’s previous effort, precisely because it’s much darker. This is the rapper who isn’t bragging about his conquests so much as brooding over his conscience and it’s an apt and relatable state of being for most of us.
Glover has also been much more to the point about his pursuit of power, telling the Village Voice in 2011 that it’s "what allows you to do whatever you want" as an artist. "If Will Smith wanted to play Hitler, they’d make that movie. That’s power," Glover said. "I want to do a Nazi movie. I want Jay Z and Eminem to rap on the same track with me. I’m in it for the power."
Two years later, the meaning of that power seems to have changed from one based purely on artistic freedom to one based on becoming comfortable with internal struggle. The road to power is riddled with potholes and Gambino has ridden through his fair share, as his "Camp" controversy makes clear. It’s an admirable enough goal for a black artist to want enough of it to maintain their artistic freedom. But content matters more than the medium on which is appears, a lesson that Gambino has shown that he’s slowly learning and more than willing to share.