Graham: Childish no more, Donald Glover rises to top
‘This is America’ marks Donald Glover’s long climb to find his voice
Donald Glover is having a moment.
The 34-year-old actor, comedian, rapper, singer and writer just came off of a hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live,” where he also acted as musical guest under his hip-hop alias, Childish Gambino. The second season of his genre-bending FX series “Atlanta” wrapped this week. And he’s in “Solo,” the new “Star Wars” film, where he plays a young Lando Calrissian.
But what people are really talking about is “This is America,” the new music video he released after debuting the song on “SNL.” The video racked up more than 74 million views its first five days of release, and has been studied frame-by-frame by the internet’s collective hive mind, which has dissected its many messages relating to race, gun violence, entertainment and the state of the USA.
With its startling imagery and thought-provoking visuals, “This is America” is the type of statement we expect from an artist like Kanye West. But while Kanye has been doing, well, whatever Kanye has been doing, Glover seized the moment and made it his own.
Glover didn’t arrive overnight. What feels like a sudden rush of success has been years in the making, and he created his moment through the right mixture of talent, opportunity, patience and hard work. And now he’s hotter than ever.
Even fans of Glover may not have seen his ascent coming, but his has been a long, steady rise, rare in a world that rewards viral sensations over slow-nurtured talents.
In 2006, Glover was fresh out of NYU when he landed a job writing for the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” He wrote under Tina Fey for three years before ditching the job for an uncertain future.
The fact that he was willing to leave a plum job on “30 Rock” shows he knows he was destined for big things, or at least willing to take a risk to try. “I left a really good job that was paying me very good money to do something I really like doing,” Glover told the News in 2011, during an interview to advance a performance at the Magic Stick. Then came a statement that was a sign of things to come: “I refuse to fail,” Glover said.
Glover moved to Los Angeles and won a role on “Community,” NBC’s deconstructionist sitcom about a group of community college students. Glover spent five seasons on the show, during which time he launched a rap career on the side as Childish Gambino, a name he cribbed from an online Wu-Tang name generator. He also performed stand-up comedy — his first Comedy Central special aired in 2010 — and on his first national tour, he split his time between stand-up and performing as Childish Gambino.
Because he is an outsider who never fit neatly into comedy or hip-hop circles — he would proudly brag about his nerdiness, and on-stage he wore short shorts and Garth Brooks T-shirts — Glover was allowed to roam freely around the outskirts of both worlds and find his creative voice.
The Gambino project has been a slow burn. His first two albums, 2011’s “Camp” and 2013’s “Because the Internet,” were polarizing in hip-hop circles and received spotty reviews from critics. But he struck a nerve with 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” a sprawling funk-soul project that featured the smash hit “Redbone” and landed Gambino Grammy nominations for Record and Album of the Year.
“Atlanta,” a surreal commentary on hip-hop life and Glover’s hometown, has really allowed him to flex his creative muscles. The series veers wildly from send-ups of BET-style talk shows to bizarre takes on the isolation of celebrity; the much talked-about “Teddy Perkins” episode, from Season 2, stars Glover in whiteface fright makeup as a Michael Jackson-style recluse. It plays out like a horror film and ends in a bonkers murder-suicide, and made for one of the most riveting episodes of television this year.
All of those experiences — the gig on “30 Rock,” his role on “Community,” his experiments in music, the success of “Atlanta” — set the table for “This is America,” which instantly became the most talked about music video in years.
In it, a shirtless Glover sings, dances and perpetrates horrific acts of violence, all in the name of American entertainment. The video is rife with symbolism and marks the decade-in-the-making overnight arrival of Donald Glover as a fully formed artistic voice.