On July 4, 2012, comedic actor Donald Glover a.k.a. rapper Childish Gambino released a mixtape called ROYALTY. The tape opens with a drop from the L.A. Clippers’ Blake Griffin and closes with hilarious hip-hop style sh*t-talking from 30 Rock’s Tina Fey. In between there are unexpected guest verses from RZA, Ghostface, Danny Brown and the first rhymes we’ve heard from alt-rock icon Beck in six years. Gambino sounds more comfortable, more himself, than he ever has.
This tape was supposed to be a really big deal— but it dropped on a fateful day and was overshadowed by an ever bigger, big deal. That was the day that we found out Frank Ocean’s first love was a guy. This revelation sparked conversation about sexuality, hip-hop, homophobia, tolerance, black music, masculinity and inspired countless tweets and think pieces. There was an outpouring of support and praise for Ocean coupled with the belief that this was a sign of progress. The idea of black manhood might just be expanding beyond the stereotypes of yesterday.
But what about Gambino?
Without trying too hard, Frank Ocean had done something monumental while Childish Gambino, an artist who defines himself by his desire to destroy outdated stereotypes and to defy labels put out a mixtape, trying as hard as ever to gain the listener’s acceptance and validation.
The idea of Childish Gambino is sometimes better than the reality: At his best Gambino is a young Black man from a suburban background throwing our own misconceptions and biases back in our faces with wit, humor and raw emotion on songs. But at his worst Gambino’s a self-absorbed, overcompensating, show-off.
If that sounds familiar it’s because it’s the type of criticism that’s often leveled at Kanye West, the forefather of the “Revenge of the Nerds” rap that gave us a crop of decidedly non-gangsta hip-hop stars who’re openly emotional and more likely to brag about their outfits than the bodies they’ve dropped.
In an interview for Jay-Z’s Lifeandtimes.com Glover/Gambino went as far as to name West and Tina Fey (don’t forget that Glover was hired out of NYU to write for “30 Rock.”) as his primary influences. According to Glover the two had inspired him to be himself. Doing music wasn’t just something he did on a lark, it was a therapeutic –an affirmation of the nerdy, quirky, sometimes pervy misfit he is but wasn’t always proud to be.
The Black kid as a misfit
But respect is hard to come by when weird is cool and being a geek is en vogue. Music critics hate him. Even in the seemingly tolerant music blogoshpere of today where freaks and geeks like Riff Raff, Lil’ B and Kreayshawn get love—Childish Gambino gets sh*tted on. There are very valid criticisms of his derivative style (think: Kanye meets Drake meets Lil’ Wayne) and his tasteless puns (“Man I die for my ‘hood—Trayvon!”), but what seems to piss his detractors off most is the outsider/anomaly narrative he’s created for himself.
Basically it all amounts to “Look, there are already black people like you doing music so stop whining about being an outsider.” Still, imagine applying that “heard-it-all-before” mentality to other hip-hop archetypes besides the now-popular misfit/outcast/emo kid, there’d be no rap.
In the meantime Childish Gambino is still touring, selling records and being loud about being different. A few lines from ROYALTY’s first song “We Ain’t Them” represent his attitude best: “Speak from your heart and never compromise what you feel is real/ And never let these white people tell you how to feel/ Never let anyone tell you how to feel.”