2016 isn’t Donald Glover’s breakout moment. That happened in 2006, when his Derrick Comedy video “Bro Rape” went viral. Or in 2008, when he joined the writing team of the Emmy-winning comedy 30 Rock. Or in 2011, when he dropped his debut album Camp. Or even in 2015, when his sophomore album Because the Internet was nominated for a Best Rap Album Grammy. The point is: for the better part of the last decade, Donald Glover has been breaking out over and over again, in variety of settings. A renaissance man, Glover has managed to succeed in nearly everything he’s tried his hand at.
What makes this year different is that he’s finally reached a sort of critical mass. He’s always received praise for his music, his stand-up comedy, his writing, and his acting, but it’s usually been one at a time. This year, it’s all coming at once.
The FX show Atlanta that he developed, wrote, and starred in won near-unanimous critical praise when it debuted this fall. It also netted the best ratings for a basic cable comedy premiere since Inside Amy Schumer in 2013, and is considered a top contender at the Emmys this year. Right on the heels of Atlanta’s success, Lucasfilm announced that Glover had been cast as a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo Star Wars origin film, set to be released in 2018. While all that was going on, he threw a no-phones-allowed festival at Joshua Tree, called Pharos, revealing that he had new Childish Gambino music on the way. True to his word, the tracks started coming in early November, and they’ve been some of his best received yet.
Different groups have individually known that Donald Glover is talented in each of these fields, but in 2016, they’re all finally connecting the dots. He’s been firing on all cylinders this year, and—rather than watering down his product—he’s been producing the best material of his career on all fronts.
That’s what makes the prospect of his upcoming album Awaken, My Love! so exciting. In a recent Billboard interview, Glover explained that he viewed the album and Atlanta as two parts of the same whole. "I never really saw them as different things," he said, noting that he worked on Atlanta during the day and Awaken, My Love! at night.
Indeed, the album turned out to be woven into the series, with the cover art making a cameo in the “Juneteenth” episode and its lead single “Me and Your Mama” being featured in a trailer for the show. Drawing heavy inspiration from one of the year’s best new shows is certainly not a bad way to promote an album.
Beyond the Atlanta parallels, the project will have to stand on its own. It’s first two singles “Me and Your Mama” and “Redbone” indicate that the album shouldn't have much trouble doing that. Both show a musical side of Glover that we’ve never seen before. Many reports from his Pharos show and a recent album listening indicate that he doesn’t rap a single bar on the whole project.
His Billboard interview reflected this, with Glover name-checking old funk and soul music as his inspiration rather than hip-hop. "I remember listening to songs my dad would play—albums by the Isleys or Funkadelic—and not understanding the feeling I was feeling," he said. "I remember hearing a Funkadelic scream and being like, ‘Wow, that’s sexual and it’s scary.’ Not having a name for that, though; just having a feeling. That’s what made it great… There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution."
His recent single “Redbone” shows off this influence, with a thick bass line and raspy, pitched-up vocals. It’s drawn effusive critical praise, and already racked up five million YouTube views in the past week. The album drops on Dec. 2, and will cap off a remarkable year for an artist who has long been a fan favorite but always seemed to hover right on the edge of mainstream appeal.
Whether or not Awaken, My Love! finds major success—commercial or critical—Donald Glover is thriving. Hell, we didn’t even mention his role in the upcoming, Marvel-helmed Spider-Man: Homecoming film. The part delivers—at least in spirit— on the “Donald for Spiderman” promise made on his 2010 Culdesac track “Do Ya Like." Even years ago, when Glover was far from a household name, he knew his potential to do major things. So far in 2016, he’s proven time after time that he was right, and we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.