WXTJ Writes! by Mary Hall: “From Rap to R&B: An Analysis of Childish Gambino’s Music Over Time”

If you’ve followed Donald Glover’s career as long as I have, you know of his plethora of successes in several entertainment arenas. An accomplished director, producer, comedian, and most notably actor and musician, Donald Glover is a renaissance man through and through. If you don’t know or haven’t heard the name Donald Glover, you may have heard his Grammy award winning musical moniker: Childish Gambino.

Why refer to him as Donald Glover instead of Gambino? We are talking about the evolution of his music after all, shouldn’t we talk about it through his music persona? Well, I will be likely referring to him back and forth as Glover and Gambino, but if SNL can separate the two, I believe that I can as well. And after he said that he planned to retire Childish Gambino back in 2017 (although we can see that hasn’t happened quite yet) I personally refer to him as Donald Glover more. However, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, I present to you the evolution of Childish Gambino’s discography.

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Gambino began his professional rap career in 2011 with his debut album, Camp, but began writing music long before that, and released his first mixtape under the Childish Gambino name, titled Sick Boi, in 2008. He released several other mixtapes both before and after that, most of which are still downloadable online (my personal favorite is “Culdesac,” if you’d like to take a listen). All of these songs are primarily rap, with some elements of R&B mixed in there, but regardless of those few elements, you still can feel the youthful ignorance of exploring the world in your early 20s and still trying to figure things out. If you listen closely to Camp, you can tell that the album is all about that youthful ignorance.

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Skip forward in time to 2013, we see the release of his next studio album, Because the Internet. From the first full length song, you can already sense a bit of a shift in his music. There’s still the raucous, playful aspects that you hear in Camp and his earlier releases, but you can tell that the music is more electronic and experimental than the usual songs that he’s released, especially as you listen on. You can also hear more R&B elements in there, especially in the second half within songs like “3005,” “I. Flight of the Navigator,” and “III. Urn.” He’s still holding on strong to his rap base, but he’s exploring a bit more as he branches into his early 30s at the time of release. His next lowkey release, the EP Kauai, continues that sort of transition from rap to R&B. I consider this to be the transition album from his career as a rapper to an R&B singer (although we had a rap release with This is America, this is the only rap centric release he had after Kauai, and it was 4 years later.) It’s in this EP that Gambino’s singing voice truly begins to be displayed, and you begin to hear more of the sultry, rhythmic Gambino that is central in his later releases. It still centers on youth, as did Because the Internet, but is less of an ode to never growing up and more of a realization to revel in it because it doesn’t last forever.

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2 years pass and so much has changed for Glover. He’s a father now, he’s barely 33, and he releases arguably his best album, “Awaken, My Love!” It’s a complete 180 from the music he’s released in the past in the best way possible. This is his first studio album to be released under the R&B/Soul genre, but as we can see with the over 1 billion streams of the song “Redbone,” this wasn’t met with much chagrin. The overarching theme of this album is love in all different forms, but for Glover, you can see that much of the album is dedicated to his son. (Seen in song titles such as “Me and Your Mama,” “Baby Boy,” and “The Night Me and Your Mama Met”) While experimental and funky, this album lets go of the rambunctious party-like vibe of the majority of his previous rap releases to add more maturity with an R&B one. His songs are no longer about holding on to your fleeting youth, but accepting growth and the love that comes with it.

Finally, we get to his most recent release, 3.15.20, all about time. The beginning of the album starts out very rough and gritty, which relates to his earlier era of music as he was just starting out. In contrast, the end of the album is much smoother and rhythmic, which pays an ode to “Awaken, My Love!” and the R&B/Soul/Funk path he chose to take after being a rapper for so long. The album in its entirety is about progress. He grew out of the “Childish” in his entertainment moniker and grew as a person as well; he’s grown from absolutely loathing kids to becoming a father to two, with one even having a feature at the end of “47.48”. The entire album, with the exception of two songs, have no title, and are replaced with a timestamp for the album. This represents how throughout time, we’re always growing and evolving as we dance through life. He’s continuing to practice what he preaches, and it serves as a great reminder to listeners to do the same thing. After all, time isn’t linear, neither are we, and we deserve to explore and progress at our own pace, at our own time.

One of the things that I admire most about Donald Glover/Childish Gambino is the fact that every single one of his albums tells a story. Listen to them in order, and you can see his story of maturing into the man he is today. Time is a crazy thing, but he’s certainly used it well, and it’s done well for him.

By Mary Hall (she/her), co-host of “2 out of 168” on Saturdays from 6-8pm.

WXTJ Writes! is brought to you by a team of 25 wonderful writers for the fall of 2021 and beyond. Our mission is to make our website come alive by diving even deeper into some of our favorite music — so get ready to talk music, media, entertainment, the arts, and read special stories told by radio-loving students every week here on wxtj.fm/articles.

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