From his humble beginnings as “That Guy From the Bro Rape Video” to his current success as an Emmy-winning writer, Grammy-nominated rapper, and modern-day Renaissance Man Childish Gambino has never been afraid to forge his own path. The Georgia native’s star truly began to rise in the rap world after the release of his I Am Just a Rapper EP in 2010, which coincided with his role on NBC’s Community and found the young artist rhyming over popular indie beats from the likes of Sleigh Bells, Grizzly Bear, and Neon Indian. He followed that up with the buzzy Culdesac mixtape, an untitled EP featuring viral hit “Freaks & Geeks,” and finally went on to great success with his studio albums Camp and Because the Internet. Yet before his career caught fire, he made a trio of projects that flew almost completely under the radar. What follows is a brief history of the recording and release of The Younger I Get, Sick Boi, and Poindexter, and their influence on the early career of one of the most unique voices in rap music today.
The first concrete evidence of Gambino’s hip-hop aspirations comes from 2004, when the pre-stage-named Donald Glover was an RA in Goddard Hall at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In the clip below, unearthed by fellow student and future collaborator Chaz Kangas, the pair is seen freestyling over a live rendition of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” While enrolled at Tisch, Glover completed his first mixtape, The Younger I Get, handling both the rapping and the production. “What’s cool about The Younger I Get,” Kangas told Complex, “is how you can hear the influence of the Stones Throw sound. This was that in-between space after the G-Unit mixtape invasion and before Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2 made so many rappers sound just like Wayne.”
Unfortunately, Glover didn’t receive the response he was hoping for, when, according to a 2010 L.A. Times interview, “His classmates widely derided [it] for being too confessional and wildly out of step with hip-hop's boilerplate subject matter: babes, bullets, bling. ‘It was like somebody ripped out my heart and put it on a CD,’ he recalled.” Kangas agreed, remembering “what sound[ed] like Donald naming the actual names of people in his life who affected him in good/bad ways.” As such, The Younger I Get was never released, and Glover went on to completely disown the project as “the too-raw ramblings of…a ‘decrepit Drake’” in a 2011 interview with Spin. In a strange oversight of the Internet era, the tape has amazingly never surfaced online since then.
After graduating college in 2006, Glover took a break from rap when Tina Fey hired him as a writer for her now-famous 30 Rock. The show quickly became his main focus. According to Kangas, it was only when the 2007 Writers Guild Of America strike put 30 Rock on hiatus that Gambino suddenly found himself with time to produce more music. What came of his unexpected free time was 2008’s Sick Boi, the first of several “free albums” he would put out. Although he released it under the Childish Gambino moniker (now famously known as the result of an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator), his stage name was evidently in flux during the recording process, as he refers to himself as “Bambino” and “Bambino X” several times on the project.
Sonically, Sick Boi is a bit jarring compared to his later work, as it’s obvious that Gambino is still fleshing out his voice. “In Sick Boi, I was trying to play into something, but turn it on its head, like ‘Oh, I sound like you other rappers, but my voice is high, and it sorta sounds like my nose is clogged.’ It was me messing around with a lot of that,” he told LAist in 2010. Lyrically, the album is heavy on jokey hashtag rap and light on the raw personal reflection that defines Gambino’s later work, certainly not the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. It did, however, finally reunite Glover with the aforementioned classmate Chaz Kangas on the track “My Hoodie,” and its overall geeky aesthetic (including a feature by the nerdcore/Adult Swim legend MC Chris) would carry on to influence his later projects.
Poindexter came out a year later and showed a marked improvement in his musicianship, particularly in the production department. Before Culdesac Gambino produced 100 percent of his work himself, but it wasn’t until Poindexter that his natural production talent began to shine through. The thumping bass line of “The Rocker” is a prime example, with heavy drums and a repeating baritone of “Mr. Gambino/Mr. Mr. Gambino” underscoring the track. Lyrically, the album was somewhat of an improvement from Sick Boi, but the subject matter faced some of the same criticisms. "People were asking, 'Why's his voice so high? Why is he rapping about Tina Fey? That's not going to get you any street cred,'" Glover told the L.A. Times. It’s easy to dismiss these criticisms as a lack of understanding of Gambino as an artist, but at a time when Lil Wayne still dominated the rap scene and emo-classic album Man on the Moon: The End of Day had dropped only a week beforehand, hip-hop was simply not in the same place it is today.
Looking back, the unpolished nature and under-the-radar release of these early albums makes sense; they were simply side projects for a successful television writer yearning to be more. In the same L.A. Times interview, Gambino said that at the time, "Rapping was just something I liked. Part of the problem is, people want the persona of the rapper to be hungry, like, 'I gotta make it.' People get mad if you're not putting everything into it." If nothing else, this is likely the greatest impact The Younger I Get, Sick Boi, and Poindexter had on a young Childish. They taught him how to be an artist, and how to make music the way he wanted to. In early 2011, he told Genius, “I don’t call myself anything. I’ve spent most of my life being labeled and I’ve learned that really doesn’t help anyone. The best people start a genre because people don’t get it and have to name it. I’m not trying to start a genre. I just want to make fun, dope shit to me.” In hindsight, it’s clear that he followed his own advice, and that rap music is all the better for it.