Photo by Idra Ake

“Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some?” asks Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, on “Bonfire,” the pugnacious first single from his upcoming album, Camp. “I don’t know,” he spits. “All I know is I’m the best one.” It’s an emblematic Gambino moment: cocksure swagger cut with crippling self-doubt. As a public persona, Glover—who got his hip-hop moniker from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator in college—exists at the center of a Venn diagram with an almost infinite number of rings: network sitcom star on Community, stand-up comedian, former 30 Rock writer, early YouTube sensation with sketch team Derrick Comedy, LOL-worthy Twitter celebrity, dude in Gap ads and, perhaps most puzzling to some, rapper.
With a nerdcore nasal delivery that out-wheezes Weezy, a penchant for emo Drake-ian hashtags and post-808s And Heartbreak production ambitions that incorporate everything from techno to indie rock, Glover is completely serious about his music, and yet, he can’t stop being hilarious. After releasing an untitled EP last spring and touring the country with the IAMDONALD tour that combined stand-up, pre-taped sketches and music, Glover (along with his frequent collaborator composer Ludwig Göransson) wrote and recorded Camp, his first release for indie label Glassnote. In a recent interview, Glover talked to CMJ about the joys of saying poop, the perils of being too clever and what the future holds for a self-described “weird kid who likes to do stuff.”
Bonfire by Childish Gambino
Recently on Twitter you wrote, “If my mom knew how much I watch The Simpsons, eat Gushers and use the n-word now, she’d probably have let me do it as a kid. Probably not.” Is that sense of getting away with it a big part of your music?
I rap as Childish Gambino, but people know it’s me. I think that’s the appeal. There’s true joy when I rap, and I get to say things that I don’t say in normal life. Sometimes they’re stupid; sometimes they’re silly; sometimes they’re funny; sometimes they’re true. It’s just stuff that you’re not allowed to say as an adult—and with good reason! There’s a lot of stuff you can’t say or do, but that’s why it’s music and not a manifesto. I always liked listening to Eminem ’cause he said funny shit that people thought, or didn’t think, in a weird, funny way. I feel the same way about Kanye and Pharcyde. There’s a childlike element to it, like, “Aw, he said ‘poop’!” If you’re a joyful person, you still have that side to you.
What was the biggest challenge in making Camp?
Just trying to do things by instinct instead of making calculated choices; that’s the hardest part for me. It’s a lot about getting to that feeling level as opposed to looking at it as a mathematical equation, which I’m used to doing with jokes and things like that.
Do you ever write a lyric and say, “No, that’s too funny. Childish Gambino wouldn’t say that”?
Sometimes things are too clever. Sometimes I’ll write it, and I’ll be like, “Oh, this is too much about me having fun with a word.”
Can you think of an example of a line that was “too clever”?
On [2010 album] Culdesac I was talking about money, of course, and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got paper like I just ate a muffin.” And I was like, “That’s so silly.” I don’t know if I would still do that—I mean, you get it, but you’re like, “That’s kinda silly.” It’s all about context. I say “I’ve got paper,” so you think, “Oh, he’s talking about money,” but then I go, “like I ate a muffin,” which is just … adorable. Sometimes those clever lines fight against you. I think I learned to go with the flow of the music more and don’t fight it or overthink it. Every song is like a relationship in that you have to just go with it instead of getting caught up in, “Does she really like me, or is this bullshit?”
Heartbeat (radio rip) by Childish Gambino
Do your parents listen to your music or go to your shows?
Yeah, they went to the show in Atlanta. It was very strange for them. They were weirded out by it. I don’t think anyone expects that for their kids. Atlanta was like the hometown show, so people knew all the words, and everyone knew me too, and I wasn’t expecting that. At that point in the tour I was a little jaded to it. People come with posters, they scream your name, girls are yelling and trying to get backstage—it’s a different world. When I first went on tour I was like, “This is insane,” but by the end you’re like, “Well, that’s just what happens.” But, I think for my parents, they were just floored. They’re middle class, hard-working people. Also, I have my dad’s name, so people were screaming my dad’s name the whole show. That was weird for him. He came backstage and was like, “Wow, man, I’ve never seen anything like that.” I was always a weird kid who liked to do stuff, but it was still probably really strange for them.
When you were 12, they weren’t like, “Oh, one day he’ll be a rapper onstage and—
[As parents] “He’ll do stand-up comedy bits about me, show some videos and then go into a rap concert!” [laughs] Yeah, it’s a really weird world for them, but it’s strange for me too.
Do you ever think about synthesizing all of your interests into one big project?
Yeah, I always try to think about new ways to be expressive and do something cool and interesting. But I don’t wanna do anything too lame. It feels lame to be like, “It’s a one-man show called DONNY BOY!”
So you don’t have your version of Purple Rain coming out soon?
Nah. There was an idea for a show that was kinda like a fantastical version of my life, but Larry David kinda has that on lock. I wrote a TV show that I wanted to do, but the people I wanted involved weren’t available, so we were gonna have to wait a while. So, yeah, there’s stuff, but it’s not perfect yet. Who knows? Maybe when I’m old I’ll go crazy, and then I can make it. Then I’ll get really fucking weird.