“Listen to the Culdesac and know that was an ultimatum, man, why nobody wanna admit they like me just a little bit? Won’t be on the freshmen list, guess I’ll just keep spittin’ shit” –Childish Gambino, “My Shine”
Stone Mountain, Georgia born actor, director, and writer Donald Glover’s artistic tenure as the multifaceted, GRAMMY Award-winning musician Childish Gambino has, in terms of mass appeal, had a slower mainstream ascension than most of his noteworthy contemporaries. Compared to other beloved blog era rappers, like Drake, J. Cole, Wale, or B.o.B, all of whom earned major label record deals, big-name co-signs, and radio recognition between 2008 and 2011, Glover’s rap persona did not initially take off.
In defense of his early critics, and there were quite a few, the free music Childish Gambino released from 2005 up until Culdesac, his fifth mixtape, were all offerings from an artist still in development. His image was fully defined—the nerdy, idiosyncratic, Black rapper—but his voice was not; his writing was not; his sound quality was not. At best, the music Gambino wrote and released from 2005 through 2009 sounded like the rhythmic, Lil Wayne-inspired musings of a hobbyist recording on a MacBook Pro.
Gambino’s “Bambi Remix” of Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” showcases an aspiring rapper at play. It’s not on par with the prototype; radio would have never played Gambino’s version. It’s fair to say the Canadian rapper was, career-wise, further along with crafting radio-ready singles and rapping verses. At the time, Drake earned a louder social and cultural fanfare.
Following the release of So Far Gone in 2009, Drake’s third mixtape placed him in position to be the heir to a mainstream hip-hop throne while Childish Gambino, who released his mixtape Poindexter seven months later, was still underground raw.
Critical analysis aside, Childish Gambino grew a passionate fan base thanks to the internet. Online, outside of the blogs, he cultivated a community of listeners who loved his punchlines, who loved his voice and the truths he told—they chose him as their rapper. The music industry did not; no rapper of greater esteem lifted him to higher notoriety with a co-sign.
In rap, a co-sign means everything. There is a baked-in significance to who the leaders of rap choose to co-sign. In our interview earlier this year, Atlanta rapper Deante’ Hitchcock broke it down perfectly:
“Let’s say I’m a basketball player. Take another guy and me. We’re [the] number one and two hoopers in the country. We are pretty much equal in every aspect, except Michael Jordan co-signs him, but I don’t get a co-sign. Automatically, his star power, his status, is going to raise way past mine just because someone we already respect and love gave him a nod.” –Deante’ Hitchcock, “A Conversation with Deante’ Hitchcock, The Sincere Dreamer”
Lil Wayne was the biggest rapper on Earth as we entered the 2010s, and he chose Drake and Trinidadian-born rapper Nicki Minaj to give his golden co-sign, jump-starting their mainstream careers. Both P. Diddy and JAY-Z were in a bidding war to sign New Orleans’ own Jay Electronica at the start of the 2010s as well. Kanye West selected Cleveland’s Kid Cudi and Detroit’s Big Sean as his young protégés.
Even though he wasn’t chosen by Wayne and his imprint Young Money, Gambino rapped, “Weezy F is in jail, I keep his seat warm, nigga,” on “I Be On That,” the third song from his 2010 mixtape, Culdesac. The lyric speaks to how serious Donald Glover viewed his rapping. He saw himself as a voice who could live up to the rapid-fire, punchline-heavy standard Lil Wayne set as the apex of modern lyricism.
Childish Gambino wasn’t alone in drawing from these influences; several new rappers, from Kendrick Lamar to Tyler, The Creator, who came to renown in the 2010s, were carriers of Wayne’s lyrical ethos or Kanye West’s artistic influence or a combination of both.
Drake and Childish Gambino, with their mixtapes So Far Gone and Culdesac, respectively, reflect the lanes which were opened for singing, introspective rappers following the success of three pivotal albums: Kanye West’s Graduation, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, and West’s 808s & Heartbreak. These were benchmark releases; culture shifters that showed a new generation of aspiring rappers a blueprint to build their empires in a new decade that would be filled with Auto-Tune crooning, breathless rapping, personal reflection, and rockstar egos.
The influence of these three albums is embedded in the soil where Childish Gambino and Drake planted their artistic seeds and began building their creative teams. Culdesac is the first Childish Gambino mixtape with co-production by Swedish composer, conductor, and record producer Ludwig Göransson. Much of the rich orchestral textures that permeate the project likely stems from their close collaboration. It’s similar to how Canadian producer Noah “40” Shebib brought the aquatic, trademark R&B sound to Drake’s palette once they began collaborating as artist and producer on So Far Gone.
Lyrically, as two emerging rappers, Gambino and Drake had the perspectives of honest outcasts who felt like outliers in the rap world. Despite feeling unaccepted, they carried the same exaggerated confidence. They rapped as if, on the record, no one was better. This worked for Drake because he was able to showcase his penmanship next to Wayne, who has three features on So Far Gone. There’s also a verse from Bun B, a hook from Trey Songz, a duet with Omarion—Drake stacked the entire tape with appearances from noteworthy names.
Not to disqualify Drake’s impressive catalog of solo records, but 11 years ago, he was surrounded by heavy hitters. Childish Gambino was not. There is not a single feature on Culdesac. Gambino carries the entire tape like it’s a debut album. Full of original production and a variety of passionate rapping and sultry singing, Donald Glover pushed to prove that he’s a serious artist.
“Drake with dyslexia, I have gone so far,” Gambino raps on “Difference,” the introduction track on Culdesac. Another mention of the rising Canadian rap star appears on the punchline-heavy “You Know Me,” where Gambino raps: “I’ve been working for a minute, hope this album’s a success / I’m not tryna to do Drake numbers, I’m just tryna do my best.”
Although no lyric appears to be inspired by jealousy, it’s evident during the making of Culdesac, Drake’s success was inescapable for the Stone Mountain rapper. How could it not be? They were cut from the same cloth. One rapped over a Lykke Li sample while the other sampled Adele, but those choices came from the same intention of being different—to be the rapper for the hood and the hipsters.
The two are similar, the sun and the moon. They both had breakout mixtapes, underwhelming debuts, and career-defining sophomore albums. Around their third studio albums is where Drake and Childish Gambino diverged to different paths in their artistic growths.
If you put co-signs aside, Drake’s uncool was just cooler. From the start, Childish Gambino wasn’t a J. Prince investment; he wasn’t rapping over DJ Screw beats; he didn’t make anthems for the women in strip clubs despite being from Atlanta.
So Far Gone is a smooth listen front to back, no one was offended by the lyricism, but there are plenty of lyrics on Culdesac that one shouldn’t say out loud. “I’m on top of turd mountain; king shit, bitches,” he raps on “I Be On That.” “Know my verses can be silly, but I’m choosing not to spray rounds / My verse is pedophiles on the playground, okay now?” he raps, laughably, on “You Know Me.”
Some might argue those lines were a part of Gambino’s charm; he was awkwardly outgoing, unafraid to say whatever lyric that came to mind. At worst, Culdesac is home to a brand of lyricism that dates back to a time of punny, shock value punchlines that would peak in 2011 with Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers.” To be fair, for his many questionable lines, Gambino has plenty of classic bars. One of my personal favorites:
“I don’t see it like a Pusha-T and Wayne handshake” –Childish Gambino 2012 Freestyle
At best, Culdesac was a necessary release. One that paired all of Donald Glover’s talents, foresight, vision, and introspection into a concise, 15-track mixtape. Released on July 10, two months before Glover’s 27th birthday, his fifth mixtape captured a man in transition, with a gut full of whiskey, a mind full of ideas, a voice that wanted to sing, a heart that wanted to rap. He felt undeniable, and people gravitated toward that glow of self-assurance.
“Community regular, 30 Rock writer, and stand-up phenom Donald Glover brings more skills to the rap game than any pretender in years, fellow actor Drake included,” Robert Christgau wrote in his glowing review of Culdesac, showing how a critical shift was starting to surround the music. More importantly, though, the fans loved Culdesac. They saw Gambino as special—as their rapper.
Childish Gambino, much like Mac Miller, did it without a Drake feature; he did it without a Hov verse. He didn’t need them. He needed Ludwig Göransson, Hiro Murai, and each member of Royalty. All those pieces gathered around him following the release of Culdesac. The mixtape that changed his life, and so many others.