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The Forgotten Mix Tapes of Childish Gambino

Long before ‘Redbone’ and ‘This Is America,’ Donald Glover made a series of personal albums as he was getting famous. They’re an enticing peek into the musician and actor he would become

All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.

For about a three-year span, Donald Glover was arguably the biggest thing in the world. Starting around 2016, when his groundbreaking series Atlanta first aired, up through 2018, when “This Is America” hit the internet like a bomb, the massively talented writer/actor/director/rapper/stand-up seemed to be everywhere, with everything he touched turning to gold. He was funny in The Martian, sexy in Magic Mike XXL, a very credible Lando Calrissian in Solo and a pop star thanks to “Awaken, My Love!” and its ubiquitous single “Redbone” — and that’s after being part of the beloved cult sitcom Community and on the writing staff for 30 Rock. (Hardcore comedy fans also worship him for his involvement in Derrick Comedy.) Taking on challenges one after another, knocking them all down with apparent effortlessness — he’s even pivotal in one of the all-time great Halloween songs — Glover made other performers look lazy as he flexed a seemingly limitless amount of ambition. It was a hell of a run.

Glover’s been pretty quiet since — the last few things he’s done, 2019’s minor Guava Island film and the following year’s 3.15.20 album, felt self-indulgent and phoned-in — but he’s back this month with Season Three of Atlanta, which will conclude in the fall with its fourth and final season. But while we wait to see if the 38-year-old can return to his previous glory, it might be time to shine a light on a segment of Glover’s career that’s less well-known. Recording under the name Childish Gambino, he’s had a series of hits, including “3005” and “Summertime Magic,” but there’s a whole treasure trove of mixtapes he produced before releasing his official 2011 debut Camp that are worth your time. If you only know “Redbone” and “This Is America,” these earlier recordings provide a valuable glimpse into a young Glover coming into his own. 

When Tina Fey hired Glover around 2008 to work on 30 Rock, he was initially suspicious: “I wondered, ‘Am I being hired just because I’m Black?’” (Turns out, his concerns were well-founded: His job was part of NBC’s Diversity Initiative, meaning it didn’t come out of her budget.) But Glover wasn’t just doing comedy at the time. In the mid-2000s, the rising stand-up was already pursuing his musical interests, first under the name mcDJ. To that end, he created A Charlie Brown X-Mas EP, which remixed songs from that animated holiday staple, including “Christmas Time Is Here.” He also did a Fiona Apple remix project called Apple Sauce, and he tinkered with Sufjan Stevens’ acclaimed Illinois, turning it into Illin-Noise

Back then, he would record under different pseudonyms, like Bambino X, an indication that he was mostly screwing around. “[The pseudonyms] were all in college when I was making different types of music and experimenting with all these different types of beats,” Glover said in 2010. “I was doing jungle, dubstep, and then I realized it was too much so I had to consolidate. I don’t even use them anymore. I just use Childish Gambino. When I DJ I go by mcDJ but that doesn’t mean anything at all. Childish Gambino, that’s basically the heart. Childish Gambino is like my Batman cape. It’s what I wear when I have to be as fearless as I want.”

The first of his Gambino mixtapes that’s easily findable online is 2008’s Sick Boi. Apparently put together while he was under the weather, the album has an appealing looseness, with the beats solid and the rhymes confident. “I was making beats so much, it was actually a nice way to unwind,” Glover would say later, “and I wanted to have somebody rap over these, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ That was pretty much it.” Referencing pop-culture ephemera and giving shout-outs to Upright Citizens Brigade, the improv institution that helped catapult comics like Amy Poehler to stardom, Glover opened up about his life as an up-and-comer trying to balance a burgeoning career and a girlfriend. On Sick Boi’s closer, “Babydoll,” he sings through a stuffed-up nose over a dreamy, keyboard-driven track, telling his girl he loves her but, well, sometimes the job comes first:

I think you kinda know I got a girl on the side 
She pay for my house and she pay for my ride 
She give me nice things and she make me feel good 
She give me a little cash and I spend on you

Comparing his job to a mistress, Glover was appealingly vulnerable and clever, hinting at the emo-ish, introspective tendencies that would pop up on later records (and also Atlanta). But his skills only grew on the following year’s Poindexter, which definitely sounds like a guy who’s experienced some success. Released the same month as Community premiered, Poindexter is full of joyous boasts and uptempo rhythms. On “I’m So Focused,” which features a sped-up sample from indie songwriter Jens Lekman, Glover lets us know how great his life is:

I’s a boy in the hoodie and a hat to match
And the shit bright orange like a pumpkin patch 
And they call me Guy Ritchie cause I work with snatch
And I’m rich, and a guy — whatcha all think of that? 
And the cops stay on me cause I’m young and Black 
And the boy stay crazy like a pound of crack
And I’m all that jazz like my name was scat
College dudes like me too like my name Borat

Poindexter is a blast and also a goof, never more clearly than on “The Awesome,” which takes the ultra-dumb sports-stadium anthem “Kernkraft 400,” and transforms it into a personal testimony about how fabulous he is. And that’s after he swipes the cheesy 1980s anthem “Easy Lover” for “Extraordinary,” constructing boasts in which he compares himself to Kanye West and declares, “These niggas think that I’m playing / I ain’t saying nothing / I’ll fuck your girl on the burner / I’m Stove Top Stuffing.” 

But Glover was just getting warmed up. In early 2010, he seemed to lean even more heavily on the notion that Childish Gambino was his alter ego, delivering in quick successions two short mixtapes, I Am Just a Rapper and I Am Just a Rapper 2, where the brashness of his raps were matched by the boldness of the music. Tracks like “New Prince” and “Bitch, Look at Me Now” had a strut to them, proudly flaunting their samples lifted directly from, respectively, Sleigh Bells and Grizzly Bear. Still, Glover was very much in his feelings, telling his haters, “You started rapping when you wasn’t good at basketball / I started rapping ‘cause I fucking need some Adderall.” 

“I listened to a lot of indie music. I feel like a lot [of] rap heads don’t really listen to a whole bunch of music and are closing themselves off,” Glover told Complex around that time. “People feel that if you like T.I. then you won’t like Animal Collective or if you like Jeezy you’d probably hate Lykke Li, and I don’t think that’s the case. Hip-hop is the most eclectic type of music ever, because you can stay up on anything. If the beat is tight, the beat is tight.” 

The I Am Just a Rapper mixtapes was further proof that Glover was way more than just a comedian who rapped, but it was that summer’s Culdesac where he achieved true greatness. A grand, sweeping statement boasting the most vibrant music of his career to that point, the album allowed him to embody the Childish Gambino persona with a swagger he’d never before matched. It also helped that he’d teamed up with Ludwig Göransson, a composer who worked on Community and became a close collaborator.

“I was really impressed by Donald’s musicality,” Göransson told the Los Angeles Times that year. “I was very surprised by his chord changes, melodies. And it’s really not easy to sing as well as he does. He’s hard-working and very versatile. He knows exactly what he wants. … I didn’t know he was a writer until I started listening to the lyrics and he’s on there rapping about Tina Fey.”

Glover’s friendship with the 30 Rock creator comes up a few times on Culdesac, but so do his insecurities about holding onto a romantic relationship and having a lot of white fans. (Fam Udeorji, Glover’s manager, told The New Yorker in 2018, “People thought Donald was a whiny dude who wasn’t into his Blackness.”) Despite the vulnerability and candor, though, the music never stops exploding, whether it’s the jittery stomp of “You Know Me” or the piano-driven statement of purpose “Difference.” And on “Hero,” it sounds like he’s marching in the center of a parade celebrating his magnificence. “Yeah, yes, I’m on top,” he declares. “I’m going this hard / And, no, I won’t stop.” In that same L.A. Times interview, Glover tried to be humble, then thought better of it. “If I slowed down, if I took a vacation, that’s not only a detriment to me — but to the world,” he said. “Not like I have so much to give the world but … yeah, I have so much to give the world! I have so many ideas and things I want to do, sleeping isn’t going to accomplish that.”

Glover’s earlier work had felt like mixtape music — solid but sometimes a little thin — whereas Culdesac felt legitimately stunning, boasting a cinematic sweep and indelible melodies. It was the sound of an artist whose moment had arrived — and you could sense Glover’s impatience at not being given his props as a rapper. “People just realizing that I’m awesome / Why they take so long?” he brags at one point. “Skip around the album / It’s not hard to find your favorite song.”

From there, Childish Gambino went mainstream, releasing Camp the following year, slowly expanding his musical vocabulary (alongside co-writer and co-producer Göransson) to introduce more layered production and a wider sonic reach — soon, he’d be embracing everything from pop to R&B. (He didn’t lose his sense of humor along the way, though: On Camp, he boasts, “I’ve wanted this since a three-year-old / I’ve seen it all / Like I’m John Mayer’s penis hole.”) 

The dazzling experimental textures on Camp’s follow-up album, Because the Internet, were even more impressive, but they merely opened the door for the kaleidoscopic sound of “Awaken, My Love!” In a lot of ways, that latter album (in which Glover started playing around with funk and croon-y ballads) felt like a sonic extension of Atlanta’s narrative risk-taking, shedding other people’s perceptions of who he was in order to reinvent himself. As Earn, the struggling young man juggling fatherhood, a relationship and a nascent job as a rap manager, Glover gave Atlanta its soulful, melancholy foundation — the character was far removed from the electric modern-day Childish Gambino, more like the hustling guy from Sick Boi. Funny enough, his Lando in Solo doesn’t seem that removed from the uber-assured Gambino that popped up on “Awaken, My Love!” — the suave lover-man who knows he’s the shit. The different onscreen personae he’s shown to audiences were all previewed in his music.

Initially, Childish Gambino (and mcDJ) were ways for a comic to show off other sides of his creative personality. When actors do a musical side project, it can be easy to dismiss it as a lark or a hobby. But the remix albums demonstrated Glover’s talent, while Sick Boi and Poindexter gave him a chance to put on a mask in order to reveal some painfully real emotions. 

“The music is a release valve for me, because in comedy you’re not really allowed to put yourself into it,” Glover said in 2010. “People aren’t there to hear your sad stories or how you feel,” he added with a laugh. “Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. So, all the troubles that I’ve been going through, whether I felt alone or something like that, I would write a song.” That mixture of cockiness and honesty was well-suited for an era in which Kanye and Drake were becoming hip-hop superstars, turning rap into bedroom confessionals. But as Childish Gambino (and Donald Glover) got bigger, that diary-entry intimacy started to fall by the wayside, replaced with the pure pop of the 2018 EP Summer Pack and, just a few months earlier, the sprawling anger of “This Is America.” In either guise, Glover was no longer singing as a regular guy just fooling around — he was now making music for a huge audience waiting to hear what he’d do next. 

That’s a far cry from the quietly hungry dude with a cold who, on Sick Boi, tried to convince the world that he was huge. On those early mixtapes, you hear a funny young man being serious, but also funny about all the insecurities he had, pretending to be a cool rapper while feeling a bit like a dork on the inside. Glover would go on to phenomenal success, but those old albums are a reminder of his mindset before he got famous. “I got the game shook like a young Black Elvis,” he proclaims early on Sick Boi

That wasn’t true at the time, but he could see the future.