At the age of 26, Donald Glover’s résumé reads like that of a lifetime achievement award: former writer for NBC’s 30 Rock, ensemble cast-member of NBC’s surging Community, award-winning stand-up comedian, sketch comedy writer and performer with the internet sensation Derrick Comedy, and writer and star of the same group’s feature length theatrical release, Mystery Team. And yet, maybe his most impressive feat is the fact that amidst all these projects, Glover still found time to regularly make music under the alias Childish Gambino, releasing a series of underground mix tapes that received an almost perplexed reaction from fans of Glover’s comedy and rap fans alike. Was the rapper’s squeaky, hyperactive delivery and chest-thumpin’ hip hop bravado for real, or just some elaborate joke that he was playing on all of us?
Enter Cul De Sac, Glover’s first full length album released last month, in the form of a free download. And joke’s on us: it’s pretty damn good for a number of reasons. Do yourself a favor and skip straight to track 7, “Let Me Dope You,” if only to hear the opening line, in which Gambino snarls: “Welcome to the Cul De Sac, this is where the street ends,” and you’d have a better idea of the place Childish Gambino represents in the fabric of modern day hip hop. And while some may say that the songs on Cul De Sac may not even be hip hop in the most traditional sense, there’s no question it’s an exciting peek into what may be the future of the below-the-surface rap scene that sits between the clutches of the synthed-out klaxons of the mainstream club hits and the shackles of underground and independent hip hop still lost in a decade-old musical reverie.
Why is Cul De Sac not exactly rap? A song like “Do Ya Like” is closer to some weird acid-hop track, more akin to a sort of modern Morcheeba; a niche genre that’s been woefully forgotten in today’s DJ compositional culture so taken with house/dancehall/dubstep aesthetic (not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily). Gambino sings over the organs and faint drum beat, drowned out in echoes, seamlessly moving in between singing and rapping. It’s a stunning feat of musical awareness that Glover manages to recreate multiple times on the album, creating songs that you label as rap, notwithstanding the fact that they do everything possible to eschew predictable rap tendencies. Listen to Gambino as he raps over a gorgeous piano riff in the album’s opener, “Difference,” or the neo-soul “So Fly,” that manages to end as if it were straight from a Shins song; this is an album that strives to do something more than simply indulge some rap-star delusion that Glover had in between casting calls and writing sessions.
There are some genuinely beautiful moments on this album, originating from a musical sensibility flavored by alt-indie influences that Glover obviously loves. Listen to “These Girls” (featuring, of all acts, the comedic duo of Garfunkel and Oates) and tell me you can’t hear that fitting right in with any number of indie bands you’ve heard about on Pitchfork. And yet, Cul De Sac is, at most times, a distinctly rap album. The swelling strings on “Hero” sound like the best kind of Bad Boy track, while songs like “I Be On That” and “Let Me Dope You” are straight riffs on Young Jeezy, aggro-Southern rap styles. The chorus alone from “You Know Me” could be the best hook on any number of Dirty South rappers’ albums, and yet Glover pulls it off in a way that is all his own.
Perhaps the most astounding feat of Cul De Sac is how much it manages to avoid sounding completely derivative, while being consistently familiar. Part of it occurs due to Glover’s skills as a spirited and creative rapper; his over-excited delivery and clever punch lines would be enough to keep your attention on even the most familiar beats. But, it’s almost as if Glover is so informed on the music he’s seeking to emulate, that he’s become a master at each of them, twisting it in small, subtle ways. The familiar elements register in your brain on a visceral level, but the logical part begins to delve into the content and realizes there’s something different and, more importantly, worth listening to there.
The closing track, “The Last,” expresses Glover’s philosophy in succinct fashion:
“Other rappers try to go and get over
You want that hood shit? Best to go and call Hova
I was a good kid, backpack on my shoulder
98 test score, in my Thundercats folder.“
Amazingly, Glover’s unapologetic refusal to act like other rappers makes the times he attempts to sound like other rappers sound … well, original. And sure, there will be people who will try to detract from his accomplishment, saying that this album isn’t like the hip hop they’re used to hearing. The left-of-center space that a growing contingent of rappers are trying to fill, somewhere between the club hits of the radio and the monotonous drone from the underground, is becoming a fascinating place, full of skaters and hipsters, people who have an undying love to hip hop, but have grown up in a culture where music is ubiquitous to the extent that everyone will listen to almost everything. And in a week where we saw rising rap star Kid Cudi’s new single “Erase Me” drop on the scene sounding like some weird Weezer, pop-core ode, it’s becoming harder to see where rap ends and other genres begin. Some may bemoan that phenomenon, but I remain excited for the future. If only because as much as I love hip hop, I don’t always want to listen to only rap. Donald Glover is probably the same way, and it seems that he’s comfortable with letting us know it while being pretty damn great at saying it too.
P.S. I’ve been thinking about Don Glover and Childish Gambino so much that I made a song about him, called “Don Glover 4 Spider-man.“