The aisles of grocery stores are barren. All major concerts and sporting events are canceled. The stock market is crashing. Citizens across the world have been encouraged to stay inside. Thousands of people are dying. Even America’s dad has tested positive for a deadly virus that’s now responsible for a worldwide crisis.
But in the middle of these bleak, unprecedented times, one thing that we can stay positive about is new music. In the past 48 hours alone, we’ve been blessed with a second collection of songs from Lil Uzi Vert in as many weeks, an exceptional debut album from Don Toliver, Jay Electronica’s long-fabled debut album (featuring JAY-Z!) and more.
As if that wasn’t enough, Donald Glover returned in the very early hours of Sunday with a surprise new project that streamed in a loop on his new website, donaldgloverpresents.com, until it mysteriously disappeared later in the evening. As of now, the project has no title, although some have pointed out that “Donald Glover Presents” is also the name given to his adidas partnership. It appears to consist of 12 tracks, including guest features from 21 Savage, SZA, and Ariana Grande.
Without further ado, let’s get into it. As with everything Donald Glover creates, whether from his Childish Gambino persona or not, this one will take more than just one day to completely unpack, so we’ll do that in the coming weeks. But for now, I wrote down some initial thoughts after a few spins. Here are eight big takeaways from Donald Glover’s surprise collection of new music. [Note: All song titles referenced below are placeholder names being commonly used by fans until an official tracklist is revealed.]
Timing is everything
The context that surrounds an album always influences the way it’s received by listeners, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Donald Glover was intentional about sharing this collection of music exactly when he did. In the midst of a global pandemic, he chose to present these songs alongside hand-drawn artwork depicting society in the throes of hysteria. And although it’s likely that most of this music was recorded long before words like “COVOID-19” and “social distancing” were inescapable, these songs reflect the chaotic, unpredictable feeling of the day. One moment, Donald delivers sweet, sunny melodies on “Sweet Thing / Thank You,” before things turn apocalyptic on “Algorythm,” where he growls over dystopian electronic production: “Humans don’t understand, humans gon’ sell a lie/’Cause humans gotta survive, we know we gon’ die.”
Even though it’s probably been on a hard drive somewhere for months (or years), Donald had to have known this line would hit different right now: “Why go to the party/Why go to the party/Why go to the party at all.” He’s always had an anxious perspective on the future of humanity, and this comes through vividly on a song like “Time” where he sings, “Seven billion people/Tryna free themselves/Said a billion prayers/Tryna save myself/I can see it coming/But it's moving fast.” Can you think of a better refrain for March, 2020? It’s still unclear exactly what the plan was behind the release of this music, but it feels like Donald was sitting on music that he realized was naturally aligned with the tone of a global pandemic, and decided to share it with the world. With the recent news that the third season of Atlanta has been put on hold due to coronavirus outbreak concerns, we know Donald is feeling firsthand anxiety from this pandemic. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think he hand-picked a collection of unreleased songs from his stash, with the specific goal of soundtracking a moment like this.
It was unveiled as a collective experience
Instead of uploading these songs to traditional streaming platforms, Donald chose to share them in one continuous loop on his website until Sunday evening. When listeners arrived at the site, they were plunged into the middle of a stream, wherever it happened to be at the time, with no knowledge of where they were in the tracklist. There were no song titles, no credits, no explanations at all. Not only was this a unique, refreshing way to experience music in 2020, completely void of context, it also acted as a unifying way to hear an album for the first time. No matter where you were in the world, you were hearing the same song at the same time as everyone else who was tapped in. Considering the fact that everyone is similarly unified by the same life experiences right now (being locked down in isolation), this feels like a deliberate choice from an artist who has a fondness for experimental, collective listening events. Remember PHAROS?
This is the beginning of the ‘Donald Glover’ era
A couple years ago, Donald Glover kept telling everyone he was planning on “retiring Childish Gambino.” Now, it seems that may have just happened, considering this project was shared as “Donald Glover Presents,” without any mention of his Childish Gambino alias. After listening to this music, which is stylistically miles away from the rap-centric material he was making when he used a Wu-Tang Clan name generator to come up with “Childish Gambino,” this decision makes a lot of sense. Donald isn’t the same artist as he was back then. Gone are the days of the punchline raps we heard all over Camp. Now, he wants to sing. He’d rather make genre-defying, melodic music than stick to just one style. Fortunately for fans, it seems a complete retirement from music isn’t imminent. Instead, it’s the beginning of a new era—the Donald Glover era.
Donald’s evolution continues
Donald Glover took a sharp stylistic left turn on his 2016 album, “Awaken, My Love!” which veered away from his hip-hop origins in favor of R&B, psychedelic soul, and funk. On this new collection of music, he continues that evolution. Here, Donald leans even harder into his R&B influences, but this time, he’s a little more in line with 2020 pop music. Where “Awaken, My Love!” was criticized by some as being a pastiche of bygone eras, these songs feel more fresh. This time, he injects his influences with distinctly modern furnishings—playing with forward-thinking electronic production techniques, vocal effects, and contemporary songwriting methods. And the addition of guest vocals from 21 Savage, Ariana Grande, and SZA doesn’t hurt to make this thing feel more current. After being overshadowed by his influences the last time around, Donald is now coming into his own and bending these sounds into a form of his own making. The evolution of Donald Glover just took another step forward.
Donald is forever experimenting (but now more effective)
Whether it’s writing surreal storylines on Atlanta or dramatically switching genres without warning, Donald Glover has always liked experimenting—a tendency that isn’t lost with these new songs. Midway through the opening track (or at least what’s being commonly referred to as the opener) “Warlords,” he hits us over the head with jarring electronic production and nearly indecipherable lyrics, creating an unsettling mood. It’s as if he’s telling fans, “If you were expecting an album full of straightforward pop songs after the release of ‘Summertime Magic’ and ‘Feels Like Summer,’ think again. I’m still going to fuck with you a little.” But unlike some of his experimental moments in the past—think “Riot”—he’s figuring out how to execute on these ideas in a more effective way. The moments of experimentalism feel more intentional now. On songs like “Algorythm,” he deliberately makes use of an abrasive electronic beat to convey a feeling of paranoia and unrest. Alternatively, a cut like “Sweet Thing / Thank You” takes on a calming, euphoric feeling thanks to a kaleidoscope of diverging sounds. Either way he takes it, the experiment works.
21 Savage and Donald are a hell of a duo
Donald Glover and 21 Savage first connected in late 2018 on i am > i was standout, “Monster,” a song that featured Donald rapping harder than we’d in years. Now, on “Vibrate,” they’ve connected again, with results that are just as thrilling. After Donald bounces around all over the beat, flipping from nimble raps to soaring falsettos, Savage anchors the song with a typically menacing verse, highlighted by lines like, “Got a girl in Harvard, I talk proper when I call her/Baby, I'm a baller, ain't no way that I can rob ya.” They’re two for two. Forget that long-rumored Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino collab project. We need a joint album from 21 and Donald!
We get a rare look at Donald Glover, family man
In early 2016, Donald Glover became a father for the first time when he and his partner, Michelle White, had a son named Legend. Now, he’s including his children in the creative process for the first time. On the outro of “Don’t Worry About Tomorrow (The Violence),” we hear the voice of one of his sons, who playfully sings along with the melody of his father. Then Donald asks his son, “Who do you love? Me” and his son responds, “Yeah.” “Any one else?” Glover asks. “Mom and Hulalo. And Santa/And I love-and I love Roland/And I love myself,” his son says. It’s a sweet look into the family life of a notoriously private figure, and an early glimpse at Donald Glover, family man.
He’s getting better
My biggest takeaway from a first listen of these new songs is that Donald Glover is improving as a musician. As a working actor, comedian, writer, producer, and director, he has never been able to dedicate 100% of his time to music. So at times, he hasn’t been able to properly execute his most ambitious musical ideas on Childish Gambino projects. That’s beginning to change on this project. Here, his skills as a vocalist have improved noticeably, as has his knack for overall songwriting. He’s leaning on his influences less, taking more calculated risks, and at 36 years old, his worldview has matured. His skills are still sharpening with age. We may never see the day that Donald Glover quits ever other creative pursuit and focuses all his attention on music, but for now, he’s still somehow finding time to advance himself as a musician. We’ve all been rewarded with a new collection of songs that are, on first listen anyway, a marked improvement on “Awaken, My Love!”