When accomplished writer, actor and comedian Donald Glover took to the rap pseudonym Childish Gambino to put hip-hop on notice with the released-in-2011 single "Freaks and Geeks," he didn't mince words. In the track's most declarative line he spits, "Told all you n----s, I'm in it to win it, cause having an Emmy just wasn't enough."
THE DON OF ALL TRADES: Childish Gambino
There was no guarantee the music culture would respond, but at the very least he was bold in his approach. Since then, the rapper has been on a crusade to prove his music isn't some sort of gimmick.
Gambino hits Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre on July 27 hot on the heels of his highly anticipated mixtape, Royalty, released earlier this month. While the project stands in a crown-jeweled glow of praise and positive reviews, it also validates an even scarier proposition — he may actually be able to do it all.
His resume is well-known — 30 Rock writer, co-star of the cult favorite sitcom Community, that black guy in the Derek Comedy videos on YouTube. Yet, to hear Gambino on Royalty, you realize he's a far cry from his previous musical incarnations like mcDJ — his electronic music alter ego — and, lyrically, light years away from what long-time fans heard on Sick Boi in 2008, Poindexter in 2009 or I Am Just A Rapper in 2010.
The first glimpse of the rapper he has become showed up on his mixtape, Culdesac, released in 2010. He wasn't bowling over hip-hop heads with a flow they'd never heard before, but there was a sincerity and spirit the genre had misplaced. There were also the inklings of a broader appeal.
The release of EP in 2011 resulted in a shift from the mere suggestion that you should take his music seriously into a demand for it. Fans still got the wit and perspective they had grown accustomed to, but it was combined with a swagger that transcended the shy geek vibe from previous releases.
Now, with Royalty, Gambino has given up on pleading his case for hip-hop stardom. He's already earned it. Gone are the inklings that he wants to be Drake or Lil Wayne. His voice and sound were defined by nine previous releases. He's found his niche within hip-hop and there's no longer a question of swagger jacking.
"I used to rap about nothing. Now I rap about nothing. But that nothing was something that ain't nobody was bumping," he spits on "Silk Pillow," which features Beck, who also co-produced the track. And the formula was actually simple: "No cosign, no bovine, more swag, pull back on the punchlines," he raps on "We Ain't Them."
Gambino has been able to harness the traits that made him an entertainment jack-of-all-trades and concentrate them within the music. Party songs? Check. Deep and insightful tunes? Check. Witty and clever ones? He's had those since his studio debut, Camp.
His celebrity status affords him the opportunity to put together a hip-hop who's who for Royalty. There are songs with childhood heroes and personal favorites like Beck, RZA and Ghostface Killah. He makes hits with buzzing newer artists Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown. Then he throws in a few shoulder-shruggers including guest appearances by NBA superstar Blake Griffin and Tina Fey.
On "We Ain't Them," Gambino offers a glimpse at what the last few years have been about for him: "I went hard cause n----s say that I'm soft, even Black Thought thought I made it a little hard. I gotta be honest, feeling like the other stuff is kinda behind us ... I'm tryna show the whole world what it is and it ain't a game. He said homie stay the course, ain't shit changed."
Everything has changed, though. Instead of packing modest-sized venues with diehard fans of his underground jams, expect a crowd of newcomers when he touches down in Charlotte. Internationally, cities are abuzz for his shows.
After telling us he was in it to win it and then proving it, it's apparent Gambino's idea of royalty isn't about doing it all, but rather doing whatever he wants and not having to answer to a soul about it.
July 27. 8 p.m. $32. Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre. www.livenation.com.