Donald Glover — otherwise known as the rapper Childish Gambino — is a particularly potent kind of celebrity today. He’s certainly prolific: having gotten his big break writing for 30 Rock, he followed that up with standup specials, a celebrated role as Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, and a string of rap albums that culminated in 2011’s Camp, his first studio release. However, he also manages to balance his freewheeling creative life with a sizeable digital footprint: He tweets in torrents. He does guest appearances on podcasts as disparate as The Nerdist and Rosenberg Radio. He has performed in numerous viral videos with the Derrick Comedy troupe. The list goes on.
So it was surprising that the actor all but vanished from the public eye earlier this year. He’d scrubbed his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He wasn’t doing many shows. So great was the alarm that Time Magazine wondered aloud, “Where Is Donald Glover?”
Actually, he was recording an album — perhaps his most ambitious to date. Because the Internet is the artist’s second studio effort, and listeners might find it’s very much a post-fame record at first blush. It has all the trappings of a work crafted by an artist grappling with success, excess, and the exhaustion that comes with it. But what’s interesting here is how he plays with that trope from a net native’s perspective. His fame is a distinctly online-driven kind of fame, after all. As such, the language of the work is colored by internet life as he’s lived it. What results is a thoughtful if somewhat ungainly commentary on how people relate on- and offline.
“[The internet is] very powerful, but it becomes very dangerous if we let it,” Glover told The Verge at a mansion party promoting the album. “I just want people to be thinking about what we’re doing.” That sentiment permeates the entire album, with frequent mentions of trolling, social media, and WorldStarHipHop, all the way down to the GIF-inspired lenticular album art. Meanwhile, metaphors for the web, including lyrics about surfers and spiders, abound, all alongside the lines about race and Clarissa Explains It All. It’s a solid record, even as it verges on over-produced and even maudlin at times. Make no mistake; fans can still expect the hyper-clever, oversexed lyricism that put Childish Gambino on the map. There’s still fun to be had here. But the lyrics are also suffused with his own mixed feelings about being caught up in his digital persona. This is no dissertation, but he makes a fair argument for how his use of the internet contributed to his burnout — especially in the latter half of the album.
Paradoxically, Glover has also gone out of his way to create a veritable concept world surrounding the work, all made with the virtual keenly in mind. This was clearly a massive effort, but it kind of undermines his already hazy thesis. First there’s the Groundhog Day-esque short film, “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons,” he released in August to set the stage.
Then there’s the 73-page screenplay released last week that tells the album’s narrative, littered with LOLs, emoticons, and short scenes captioned in image macro type. Finally, there’s the collaboration he did with Tumblr IRL to create an almost psychedelic installation at the Rough Trade record store in Williamsburg. As Nate Auerbach, Tumblr’s music evangelist, explained, the installation is meant to help put the "feels" back into the music.
That Glover is making use of so much media to comment on media saturation might seem like a huge troll. But that may have everything to do with his having so many feels about the internet in general, all clamoring for an audience. It’s empowering, yet destructive. It brings people together and divides them. And yet we’re stuck with it. Glover’s signature "I’m a mess" self-awareness extends to this commentary to make clear how overwhelming and all-consuming the internet is.
In the end, Because the Internet was made for the internet, messy as it is. Donald Glover just isn’t quite up to the task of encapsulating everything about his subject matter. He must know that it’s much bigger than him. For what it’s worth, he’s still better than most at making good internet. The rest of us have a ways to go. "That’s why I want people to be coding," he explains, "so they don’t have to ask somebody to change something. I just feel like that’s the language that we should all be speaking."
Photography by Dante D'Orazio