5 Songs Defined Childish Gambino’s Decade

Here’s to you, Donald Glover.
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Childish Gambino, 2015

Remember the start of the decade, when a 26-year-old Donald Glover was greeted by skepticism after ditching his writing gig for 30 Rock to focus on music and other projects?

A lot has changed over the past ten years.

Glover morphed from a burgeoning comedy writer into a full-fledged cultural powerhouse. There’s not much that he can’t do, and there’s even less that he doesn’t want to do.

Glover went from writing on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock to creating and directing his own lauded TV series, Atlanta. He went from the baby-faced Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community to a role as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Within his music, the growth of Childish Gambino has been astronomical, transcending genres and bulldozing expectations ever since he typed his birth name into that fateful Wu-Tang name generator.

Now, it’s time to celebrate Gambino by looking back at five songs that defined his decade. Each song gives us a glimpse of his range and insight into how Gambino evolved over the past ten years. 

Here’s to you, Donald.

“All the Shine” (2011)

In a 2013 interview with The Breakfast Club, Childish Gambino called himself “the son of Kanye.” Listening to his debut, Camp, released in 2011, it’s impossible not to draw a similar conclusion. Similar to a young Kanye’s intense push to be seen as a rapper, much of Camp revolves around Gambino’s ceaseless desire for acceptance, both in his community and in the industry.

“All the Shine” highlights this desire, asserting Gambino’s status as an atypical role model who “raps about [his] dick and talks about what girls is fly.” Still, he feels overlooked and underappreciated, struggling to be taken seriously as an anomaly in the hip-hop landscape. Gambino also brings the witty punchlines that marked much of his early work, with lines like “I want to go inside the club with no gold piece / And walk in with no I.D. and No I.D.

Behind his words, we hear the grand instrumentals that would become a staple of Gambino’s ever-expanding catalog. His ear for production is continually yearning for something greater, and on “All the Shine,” he uses booming drums and lush orchestral arrangements to add to the magnitude of the moment.

“We Ain’t Them” (2012)

On “We Ain’t Them,” Childish Gambino closes the book on the Camp era and sets sail on a new, self-assured path. “Feeling like the old shit is kind of behind us,” he raps, referencing both his early raps and forays into comedy. Where his voice on “All the Shine” sounds anxious and uncertain, “We Ain’t Them” sounds wholeheartedly resolved, ready to move forward on his own rather than waiting for others to take him seriously. It’s not so much a song as it is a three-minute therapy session. 

As the song rolls on, Gambino gives thanks to collaborators Ludwig Goransson and Swank for helping him block out the noise. “Never let these white people tell you how to feel / Never let anybody tell you how to feel,” he says with conviction. A sharp departure from days gone by, when Gambino would hop on the mic to cry out, “What the fuck do y’all niggas really want?

No longer preoccupied with outside opinions, Gambino’s next chapter would become much more internal. “We Ain’t Them” serves as a bridge toward that chapter, a spiritual oasis of optimism before more existential dread would arrive soon after.

“III. Life: The Biggest Troll [Andrew Auernheimer]” (2013)

When Childish Gambino said he wanted to make experiences over albums, he meant it. Because The Internet wasn’t just a collection of songs, it included a 72-page screenplay, an accompanying short film, and a vintage shearling coat that stuck to him like his family name. While everything is as abstract as it is connected, the closest thing to a thesis arrives on the album’s outro, “III. Life: The Biggest Troll [Andrew Auernheimer].”

From the first bar, existential themes in the age of technology dominate the frame. “Man made the web, you don’t need a name,” he proclaims, emphasizing how online interactions made real-life authenticity less important than ever. A creeping sense of loneliness grows louder as the song wears on before a resigned Gambino mutters, “I don’t know who I am anymore” into the abyss.

Astral synths in the background supplement the feeling, drifting the listener into outer space as Gambino ponders not only the deeper meanings of life but also the pointlessness of it all. On the one hand, he’s desperately trying to “solve” the world; on the other, he claims the real joke is on us for showing up.

“Riot” (2016)

Drop a heaping bushel of menthols into a bubbling vat of Diet Coke, and the ensuing explosion would come close to “Riot.” The preceding three songs received a mention on our list primarily due to their lyrical content, but the inclusion of “Riot” has much more to do with the production. Gambino goes to war with amped-up electric guitars to see who can out scream the other, while thunderous drums propel the song forward like a runaway freight train.

On his final tour, Gambino professed his need for every show to feel like church. “Riot” is a pivotal moment in his decade-long service. After all, he was in somewhat of a dark place during the creation of “Awaken, My Love!”—“I was going through a lot, and I also think America was going through a lot,” he said during an interview with triple j.

At the live show, Gambino gave similar speeches just before “Riot,” positioning the record as a cornerstone of the evening. He would perform a stripped-down rendition of the verses before combusting to life as an onslaught of voices and instruments ripped open the framework of the song.

Gambino’s goal was to create a vivid, larger-than-life experience; watching him writhe on the ground as the final note threatened to shatter eardrums throughout the venue, there’s little doubt he accomplished his objective.

“This Is America” (2018)

“This Is America” was arguably the most prominent cultural moment of 2018. Thanks to an intricately layered visual that took multiple views to understand the scene entirely, Gambino received his first-ever number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and four GRAMMYs including Best Music Video and Song of the Year.

The video for “This Is America” provides a witty yet coded look at the state of the country. Gambino mimics viral dances and mainstream ad-libs to keep the viewer preoccupied, even as the warehouse housing his every move descends into madness around him. Of course, the internet memed the video into virality, but the work also sparked compelling discussions on the way our country views and processes Black trauma. 

Long a cult favorite with one of the most dedicated followings in hip-hop, Donald Glover cemented his status as a superstar and an icon with “This Is America.” He officially emerged as an in-demand act, so much so that New Regency agreed to produce his Guava Island short film before he even had a script in hand. 

Not a bad way to finish a decade of excellence. 

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