CHILDISH GAMBINO / KNOW THE LEDGE 0%
He lives up in the hills of Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Walt Disney built his first big studio here in the 1920s and Forbes named it America’s best hipster neighborhood in 2012. Donald’s house—a modern structure far up on the winding roads—looks over the busy city, but from a calm and quiet vantage point.
It’s not a party per se; about a dozen people come and go throughout the night, even though reaching Donald’s house can be a struggle. Once they make it through the L.A. traffic and find a place to park on the street, guests have to walk up hundreds of steep stairs to the back entrance. By the time they make it to the door, they’re breathing heavily. Donald’s been wearing the same shirt all day and short shorts that he says sometimes get mistaken for boxers. He’s playing music ranging from Björk to Lil Durk through large speakers while a projector beams South Park onto a huge screen covering half the wall. He asks everyone to let him know if they’ve got any requests. An argument breaks out about who’s better, Maxwell or D’Angelo. Donald and company joke about girls and race and life.
With his friends around, he’s jovial and quick to break into laughter, but as the guests begin filing out around 9 o’clock, Donald gets quieter. It’s hard to tell if he’s relaxed, bored, or high off the vaporizer. He turns off the music and the conversation quickly leads back to something Donald talks about a lot: the Internet.
“Coding is a beautiful thing,” he says. “If there is a God, he definitely codes. There are fail-safes in the world. That’s code. I don’t want young black kids to aspire to be rappers or ballers. Even lawyers and doctors—those are service positions. I want them to be coders. They can make their own worlds then. They don’t need anybody else. I love hearing those kids’ ideas, all these kids on the Internet. The excitement of making something, that’s the spark of God.”
Donald Glover, 30, originally came to fame through comedy—first as a sitcom writer, then as a stand-up comedian, and finally as an actor, playing the fan favorite Troy on NBC’s Community. Since he was 20, he’s also rapped. When he makes music, he does it under the name Childish Gambino. He famously came up with the alias using an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator. Given his comedic background and goofy name, the reception to Childish Gambino’s music has often been: Is this guy kidding?
Late last year Gambino/Glover convinced a lot of people that he was dead serious about his music. In October he stopped by SiriusXM’s Sway in the Morning radio show in midtown Manhattan to premiere a track from his forthcoming album Because the Internet. He hadn’t planned to rap that day but Sway convinced him to spit a freestyle over Drake’s “Pound Cake” beat. Were they his best bars ever? That’s up for debate. But the performance became a tipping point in Gambino’s rap career. The “Pound Cake” freestyle set rap blogs afire, effectively changing the conversation about Childish Gambino. Since that day, nobody asks if the acclaimed comic’s rap career is some kind of joke.
The day before the get-together at his house, Donald sat on Arsenio Hall’s couch—wearing those same short shorts—and explained that rapping is only one of the things he can do. “Rappers don’t want to be rappers,” he said. “They’re usually artists who want to do a bunch of stuff. I don’t think any rapper wants to be just a rapper.” On that note, Because the Internet is more than just an audio experience. “I believe that music has just become advertising for a brand, and if that makes music less magical, then fuck you,” he explains. “I understand people being like, ‘I worked really hard on this song and I’d like some payment for it.’ It just needs to be done differently.”
In addition to music videos, Gambino’s album is accompanied by a 73-page script, which you can read at becausetheinter.net. The screenplay—which opens with a little boy coming home from camp (Camp happens to be the name of Gambino’s last album) and getting picked up in a limo by his father (who happens to be Rick Ross)—also contains soundless visuals designed to be viewed while listening to the album. The “prelude” to this script is a perplexingly artsy short film released on Donald’s YouTube channel called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. It all ties together, presumably, but it’s up to the audience to figure out how.
Because the Internet may seem like a strange title for a rap album—there was a time when being called an “Internet rapper” was a bad thing—but it makes sense given how much time Donald spends thinking about the World Wide Web, and how it affects both our way of looking at life and his way of making art. He seems both acutely aware of, and slightly freaked out by, the profound changes taking place around us every day. But he’s rolling with it.
With the release of his new album, Donald has used the Internet to build a world of his own. In addition to becausetheinter.net, he’s turned childishgambino.com into a trove of hidden pages and exclusive content, including password-protected music videos, a meme generator, and behind-the-scenes footage. He’s also partnered with websites like Tumblr and Rap Genius to connect with fans through live events and Q&As, making the release of Because the Internet an event that brings the web to life.
Though he’s got lots of smart ideas about how to use the Internet creatively, spend a little time with Donald and you’ll realize there are a lot of IRL issues he’s still trying to understand.
Despite all of his fame, he’d be the first to admit his insecurities. “I look at success like solving a problem,” he says. “I haven’t figured out humanity or whatever I’m searching for yet.”
On October 14, Donald shared seven handwritten notes with his 222,000-plus Instagram followers. Each piece of hotel notepad paper was filled with deeply personal fears. “I’m afraid people hate who I really am,” he wrote, “I’m afraid I hate who I really am.” Many fans fretted about Donald’s mental state, but he brushes off those concerns: “Everybody has the same fears. If my letters did anything, they proved that everyone kinda feels the same way. I’m not special. Those letters were not special. They were just louder because I have a platform.” Even so, few people articulate such thoughts to their closest friends and family, let alone on social media. “You have to be real with yourself,” he says. “No one is doing that. People are too concerned with making everything look nice and calm and pretty.”
In the last note, Donald wrote “I got really lost last year, but I can’t be lonely tho. Cause we’re all here. We’re all stuck here.” He referred to a suicide attempt in an interview with Noisey this past October, but now says it’s “nobody’s business.” On “3005,” the first single from Because the Internet, he raps, “Leave it like Cobain/And when I’m long gone, whole crew sing a swan song/’Cause we all just ticking time bombs.” Donald rejects the notion that suicide is weak or selfish. “It’s neither. I’m still here. I obviously still like it here,” he says, getting louder and excited. “Everybody feels that way. Everybody has suicidal thoughts. Everybody is on the verge of suicide every day. You could die at any moment! You could have a brain aneurysm.”
Born in California and raised in Stone Mountain, Ga., Donald is the son of Jehovah’s Witness parents. He attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and got his first big break in 2006 when Tina Fey gave him a job writing for her show 30 Rock. “He was literally still living in the NYU dorms,” Fey recalls. “And that was a great resource for us. We would turn to him and ask, ‘What would a young person say here?’ ” She wasn’t surprised when he became a rapper. “Donald comes from a generation that is very confident doing it all,” she says. “They are comfortable being rapper/actor/entrepreneur/fashion designer/sex-tape authors. Lots of rappers become actors. Why not do it the other way around?” Doing things that way presents some unique challenges—just ask Drake (or Jaden Smith). But Fey, for one, doesn’t think it matters. “I hope Donald knows not to give a shit what anyone thinks.”
Beyond rapping, Donald is most known for his role as Troy on Community. Earlier this year, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon confirmed what he called a “devastating” piece of news: Donald would appear in only five of this season’s 24 episodes. Fans immediately voiced their disapproval. “It’s funny because on Reddit, people are like, ‘Just give us another year on Community,’ ” Donald explains. “I get it, it gives life structure. You come home every day and Abed’s in front of you and when Troy’s not there it’s like, ‘Where the fuck is my structure!?’ I get it. But it’s time, man.”
Less acting means more time for music, through which he’s able to connect with fans on a deeper level than he does on TV. “I just wanna fit in, but nobody was helping me out/They talking hood shit and I ain’t know what that was about/’Cause hood shit and black shit is super different,” he raps on “Outside,” one of his songs that addresses race and class from a perspective that isn’t typically celebrated in rap. Donald embraces his outsider status, calling himself a “brown recluse” on “No Exit” or a “silver spoon coon” on “Sweatpants” and his “Pound Cake” freestyle. Growing up in a working-class town and being “the only black kid at a Sufjan concert,” as he says in “Firefly,” has given Donald Glover a unique perspective and a distinct vulnerability that listeners appreciate.
Even while delivering the heralded “Pound Cake” freestyle, nine days after posting his notes on Instagram, Gambino flaunted his insecurities. “So nerdy but the flow wordy,” he rapped, but he still impressed Sway. “Folks are sleeping on him, because they seen him on TV first,” says the veteran hip-hop DJ. “They think he’s corny or they don’t give him a shot. As he continues to evolve he’s differentiating himself from the others. He does that thing where he stops rapping and starts talking and then comes back on beat. That’s his signature. I like rappers who find ways to differentiate themselves. Patterns are all repetitious now—motherfuckers even rhyming the same words.”
According to Sway, the difference between an Internet rapper and a real MC is “tangibility.” Internet rappers might move a lot of free downloads but they can’t translate IRL. “Gambino’s beyond an Internet rapper because I’ve been to his shows and I’ve seen them sold out,” he says. While Donald claims to not care about record sales (his 2011 album, Camp, released on Glassnote Records, sold over 240,000 copies), he clearly wants to fill arenas, not college auditoriums. “My music is for everybody,” he says. “It’s stuff I like, but it’s also accessible. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir. You see a lot of these conscious rappers doing that. They’re not gaining new fans, they’re just agreeing with people. I want to reach as many people as I possibly can.”
One day in late November, Gambino hosted an afternoon listening session at Pan Pacific Park in L.A.’s Fairfax District. A couple hundred kids—a multiracial group of teenagers and twentysomethings—gathered to hear Because the Internet. He’d already held impromptu listening sessions like this in New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto. A few hours before, Donald would tweet out a time and place to his million-plus followers, and then arrive there with a sound system to play the album and chat with whoever showed up. “No one is using the Internet to make real stuff happen,” Donald says. “When information travels, things usually get made. And that’s all the Internet is. We’re just now starting to see things come from it.”
But today’s session doesn’t go quite as planned. Donald’s right-hand man, Fam—the guy seen sitting next to him by the campfire in Clapping for the Wrong Reasons—picks up a microphone and explains to the audience that they don’t have permits, so they are going to get right into playing the album before the cops show up. And if police do try to shut the listening down, he advises, “Just be cool: act natural.”
About a minute into a knocking new song called “Crawl,” a fan approaches Donald for a picture. Within seconds, half the audience swarms around him, asking questions and sweating him for photos. Sitting on a short wall on the outskirts of the park, Donald calmly greets his fans, seeming happy to speak with everyone. While Because the Internet plays out of a few big speakers, an LAPD squad car rolls up on the grass. Fam heads straight toward the cops, stalling them for a few minutes before a second car pulls up. One officer steps forward and announces that the crowd has 15 minutes to disperse before they start handing out citations. While Fam disconnects the power, Donald sticks around to chat, augmenting his online outreach with some face-to-face connections.
Some people take the name Because the Internet as a joke—a snarky comment that could be the caption to a meme. But to Donald, it’s more than that. The Internet has shaped the way he views the world, the way he relates to people, and the way he creates and disseminates his art.
“I want to show how the Internet affects our lives,” he says. “As much as everyone can find someone on the Internet now, we still feel lost. I still feel very empty. It makes me feel more lost because nothing that I do is that different. Nothing is cool. We’re kind of alone in the universe. Like those Instagram notes I shared. We all feel these things, but nobody’s figured out how to solve them.”
The first step may be just talking things out, and that’s something Childish Gambino does well. He talks about loneliness, relationship issues, isolation, and a lot of the personal struggles that artists have been talking about for decades. But he’s doing it in a new language, with the help of emojis, and with a self-awareness and acceptance that challenges the norms of hip-hop, celebrity culture, social media, and yes, the Internet. “That’s the thing—it’s not real, it’s curated,” he says back in his house, after everybody’s gone home. “Everything online—even the fucked-up stuff—is curated. It’s the same thing as going on a first date. The Internet is going on a first date over and over and over again. “The last thing I want to be is somebody who’s like, ‘The Internet is wrong.’ I don’t believe that,” he continues. “This is how we connect. I love the Internet. We’re the first ones to have to deal with this kind of stuff. Our generation is very important because we can still remember shit before the Internet. We remember just enough.”
More than just remembering, Donald understands how music and entertainment are changing and what this means for the business he’s in. “Trying to make somebody pay for music is like a bakery trying to get people to pay for smelling the bread as they walk by,” he says. “This is the way information works now, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. There’s another way to capture that feeling in a more succinct, faster fashion. That’s what the Internet does with everything. So how do you package that?”
Over the past months, Donald—who recently took up surfing (the ocean, not the web) as a hobby, and sometimes wears a wetsuit—has been using the phrase “Roscoe’s Wetsuit” on Twitter and Instagram. Nobody really knows what it means. His fans make up meanings, spread rumors, and Google arduously for clues—nothing. In the screenplay that goes with Gambino’s album, the phrase came up again in a random tweet. The lead character searches for its meaning throughout the story, but nobody can help him. So does Roscoe’s Wetsuit mean anything? Is it just a symbol for the meaning we’re all searching for and failing to find? Why does Roscoe’s Wetsuit even exist in the first place? It exists because the Internet, of course. But ultimately it exists because Donald Glover created it.