Martin had a dream, Kendrick had a dream, Donald has a dream. It's the first thing he says on STN MTN, a new mixtape that flows into a wavy iTunes EP called Kauai. "I had a dream I ran Atlanta, and I was on every radio station," Donald says. In the dream, Childish Gambino is so big that the roller rink plays him on Fridays, and he's also powerful enough to order strip clubs to shut down on Mother's Day and Chick-fil-A to stay open on Sundays, and he can fire "all the cops in Cobb County."
In a lot of (big) circles, Gambino stays overlooked, elbowed out of the hip-hop conversation since he put his first songs online in 2008. Donald spent a few years finding his footing, perfecting his new hustle, shedding the "'Bro Rape' dude tries to rap" image. R O Y A L T Y, a star-studded mixtape from 2012, was Bino saying, "I'm done making shit you can skip." His second label album, December's Because the Internet, was an even louder statement: "I'm here, and I'm doing this till it's done."
Haters are forever, though, and Donald still feels like he can only dream about Childish Gambino becoming super hot in Atlanta, not to mention in New York or Chicago or L.A., where he tends to stay. Donald grew up in the small Atlanta suburb his mixtape's named for, but something about "Childish Gambino Claims Atlanta" raises eyebrows, and nobody knows it better than Donald. So he called up DJ Drama, an instrumental legacy builder for kings like Lil Wayne and T.I., and rapped his ass off for 11 tracks. (He saved most of his considerable pop gifts for Kauai, which plays like "3005" and "The Worst Guys" had seven babies and then Donald taught them Michael Jackson impressions. As a whole, STN MTN/Kauai mirrors Beyoncé's I Am… Sasha Fierce in its two-sides-of-the-same-coin approach. Part one is night, part two is day, and it's all Donald.)
How's it sound when Bino's "being Atlanta"? He's consciously spitting over ATL tracks for half of the mixtape, stuff like K Camp's crazy-catchy "Money Baby," Future and Mike WiLL Made It's monster single "Move That Dope," Luda and the Neptunes's "Southern Hospitality." Donald throws the "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" horns into that last one, along with a reference to the track. And why not? He just opened for OutKast on the last stop of their 2014 reunion tour…in Atlanta. Gambino also reaches just outside Georgia to rap on a track by an up-and-coming Little Rock, Ark., MC named Kari Faux, and he closes the mixtape with Lil Wayne's decade-old Tha Carter single "Go DJ."
Jumping on other people's big beats can feel played-out at this point, but Gambino's got an approach that gets you tuned in. First, he's paying his respects in a way he never has before, which is just interesting on principle. But, even better, Donald Glover rhyming over Atlanta booties-and-bling beats is a total mindfuck. When you first heard "Move That Dope," and that burbling, crack-slinging chorus, you couldn't imagine a performer saying, "Rap game, I'm Steve Urkel/Urquelle/She want some pics, I'm like 'oh well, you better Google search'/Money rule my universe/Nigga we made it/We had the beat and then we heard the verse and said 'nigga we hate it'/Livin' my life like I'm Jaden Smith." That's a half-dozen references in a dozen seconds. Even while he's "being Atlanta," Bino is Bino—meta, shit-talking, Internet-y, Drake-clowning.
Childish Gambino isn't Atlanta, in that "Atlanta raps" just don't sound "like that." But he is Atlanta, because of course he is. Countless rap bars and interviews and stand-up comedy bits tell us one thing about Donald Glover: He doesn't fit into any one box, and that's always messed with his head, and that started in Georgia. On the WTF podcast a few years ago, Donald told Marc Maron that Stone Mountain was where he learned he couldn't be a black kid in a Korn shirt without getting picked on. On STN MTN, right off the top, he mentions being this "weird ass lil kid" who turned into "this ballin-ass grown man," a dude who can't quite believe he's out in Hawaii and making an EP about it.
Countless rap bars and interviews and stand-up comedy bits tell us one thing about Donald Glover: He doesn't fit into any one box, and that's always messed with his head, and that started in Georgia.
And now Gambino's "trying to say something," as he told Complex last week. "I say I'm Atlanta to make a point. If you ask a little kid who's more Atlanta, me or Iggy Azalea, they might be like 'Iggy!'" Azalea's decent at mimicking the signifiers of the South, but she's white, and Australian. She didn't grow up brown in a town where a giant stone mountain features a carved tribute to some old guys who fought a war to keep her people enslaved. "When the KKK restarted, they did it on the top of [Stone Mountain]," Donald told Marc Maron on WTF. "And there's the Confederate leaders on the side, and they have a laser show where they come to life at night during the summer." The South is an unending series of contradictions: Racism is over! Let's do a laser show to remember these old white dudes who rode and died for slavery! It's 100 percent where Childish Gambino comes from.
Bino's rhymes—rapidfire, nerdy, thought-out, silly—are pretty much nonstop on STN MTN. (Probable winner, from "All Yall": "Childish, y'all know the name/Getting hate from Charlamagnes/Last year niggas done changed/I was thinking bout killing y'all/I was working all night long/White bitches like King Kong/Getting money my theme song.") But it's not till tracks eight and nine that he starts making power plays like a guy who can boss strip club owners around.
First he does Usher and the Neptunes' "U Don't Have to Call" a cappella for a minute, eventually turning it into a soft-keyboard slow-jam with Ludwig, his longtime in-house producer, his 40. Then the rejiggered cover turns into a Gambino Moment as Donald takes the final 90 seconds and lights them on fire with a spoken-word-ish talk-rap that's both conversing with and trying to kick it with Big Boi and André 3K on "SpottieOttie" itself. "They playing Jeezy like that shit came out yesterday," Bino says. "Thug Motivation/I was never a thug, and they used to respect me for it/But now the game's fucked up, and I gotta Michael Corleone these niggas/Quiet, confident."
Funny timing, though: "Candler Road" drops, and it's neither quiet nor confident. It's massive, a Gambino track that might come first on the eventual greatest hits. Over an exploding trap beat laced with Chicago Bulls theme-style synths, those cred-oozing DJ Drama tags flying all over the place, Bino blacks out: "Hanalei Bay with my bae/What can I say? I did it/My timin' was perfect/I'm comin', they know it/Becomin' the last great American poet/The flow Lindsay Lohan/Tired, nigga/Retire, nigga/My word is art like a hieroglyphic/What island is this??" In a couple songs, he flies us there, thousands of miles away from Atlanta, to see for ourselves.
Zach Dionne is a writer living in New York. Follow him @ZachDionne.