One Minute of Music Changed Childish Gambino’s Career Forever
Donald Glover’s five-year-old soul stunner “Urn” stood out in an irony-driven musical catalogue and helped create the maverick artist we know today.
Photo via Because The Internet
Because the Internet, Donald Glover’s second album as Childish Gambino, remains a weird record even after five years and a significant generational turnover in hip-hop. It’s a burnt-out rap opera (and accompanying screenplay), laced with bleary, smeary production and song-to-song tonal shifts from glittering radio singles to multi-part suites to hallucinogenic stylistic experiments. Glover infuses every single avenue he pursues here with a droll yet mildly alarmed earnestness, the sound of an erudite mind short-circuiting after being ensnared by its own cultivated web of pop culture. It’s his Roger Waters-making- The- Wall moment of rockstar panic, likewise resulting in solipsistic mythmaking and musical grandiosity. There’s still no consensus on whether or not Because the Internet has had a lasting impact (to say that there is a discussion at all), but the album does feature a song that foresaw Glover’s eventual maturation as an artist. The straightforward, natural neo-soul of “Urn” mapped Childish Gambino’s future, and in only 73 seconds to boot.
It bears reminding that if Twitter were as wartorn in 2011 as it is now, Donald Glover would be among the many public figures who would have been caught in the crossfire. “I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect / Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech” and “If I'm a f****t spell it right, I got way more than two G's” are among the many lines Glover raps on his debut retail album Camp that would absolutely not fly today. He approached hip-hop as something of a joke on that project and his other early Gambino releases, exaggerating the genre’s boasts with his comedians’ instinct for groan-worthy one-liners while also demonstrating ferocious technical skill. Though this is a Lil Wayne-derived model, Glover was closer to other alt-rappers who appeal to listeners outside of hip-hop’s core audience (it’s not a stretch to say Camp primarily targeted white kids who found Glover through Derrick Comedy and Community). He kept rap at arm’s length by painting himself as a quirky outsider, superior to mainstream rappers by taking nothing seriously. The brand won over some and irked others, but it’s clear it became unsustainable for Glover after he seemed to undergo a public breakdown after leaving his role on Community. He felt trapped, and “Urn” seems to have contained the way out.
Produced and written by Glover and regular collaborator Ludwig Goransson, “Urn” is extremely simple, which is key to its strength. Though it does in fact run through the entire structure of a regular pop song, it only does so once rather than twice or three times, its brevity addicting rather than frustrating (he almost nailed this with Camp’s orchestral interlude “Letter Home”). While Glover ably proves himself a soul singer and craftsman with the song, that’s not the real revelation present in “Urn.” The song proved that the Childish Gambino character could perform a sincere, pleasant piece of music and still retain an element of quirkiness. “Urn” isn’t a snarking metacommentary on the state of hip-hop nor is it an anxious, spiraling cry for help. Instead, it seems to be nothing more than a love song, a quick and heartfelt plea for someone to stay by Glover’s side.
Of course, since this is Because the Internet, “Urn” is actually about Glover’s in-album character “The Boy” cradling his father’s ashes in the titular container. Still, it is really dang smooth, so that context may go over many listeners’ heads. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since letting arty concepts go down easier by couching them in inviting, well-made surroundings is a skill not many artists ever learn. For once, Glover’s high-minded ideas weren’t self-consciously explained or worse, obscured with overeager punchlines. They were just a part of a strong song. That effortlessness was only found in fits and spurts on the rest of Because the Internet, but Glover, who called “Urn” his favourite on the album, may have learned more than one thing from making the song. Though Glover had sung on a lot of his earlier music, it was here that he fully owned his R&B delivery and steadily began to allow it to overtake his rapping in prominence. The following years have proven it to be a better fit overall.
2014’s STN MTN/Kauai was partially an extended Southern rap history lesson, but its other half found Glover going full-bore into R&B and pop. Though there was an overarching concept behind the project, it didn’t muddle things because Gambino’s commitment to the musical material was palpable and placed more to the forefront than the story was. As a rapper, he often came off detached, but Kauai demonstrated that he could make for an extremely believable R&B singer. Donald Glover used to have irony and charisma as his only tools, but following “Urn,” he ditched the former and his music became all the better for it. “Awaken, My Love!” represented Glover’s bid for serious artistry. As an album, you could definitely argue that too much of it was nothing but George Clinton karaoke, but if that’s the case then it was done with considerable chutzpah. Plus, there was the undeniable success of “Redbone,” Gambino’s first big hit achieved through his new M.O. of balancing earnestness with a touch of knowing absurdity, an approach that was already being further developed in Atlanta (whose lead character’s name is a homonym for “Urn,” maybe not intentionally but you can never know with the intricately knotted Gambino-verse).
This year, “This Is America” has become Glover’s most successful song. The seriousness and focus of its video and subject matter could never have come from the younger man who made the solipsistic Camp or the paranoid Because the Internet. Likewise, the two unapologetic summer singles of this past July show that he’s now comfortable making music for a mass appeal. Glover had to learn how to take himself seriously. Because the Internet is where that lesson began, and though it’s a slight piece in Glover’s larger body of work, it might be the most important.
Phil Witmer is on Twitter.