Top 19 of the 2010s: Number 6

The end is in sight…kind of. Let’s keep rolling. Here’s a recap of the list so far:

#19: New Amerykah Pt. 2 – Erykah Badu

#18: Lemonade – Beyonce

#17: Laila’s Wisdom – Rapsody

#16: Lonerism – Tame Impala

#15: Choose Your Weapon – Hiatus Kaiyote

#14: Ventura – Anderson .Paak

#13: Stone Rollin’ – Raphael Saadiq

#12: We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

#11: The Electric  Lady – Janelle Monáe

#10: But You Caint Use My Phone – Erykah Badu

#9: No Beginning No End – José James

#8: Currents – Tame Impala

#7: Dirty Computer – Janelle Monáe

#6: “Awaken, My Love!” – Childish Gambino

“Genius” is a label bestowed upon artists more liberally than I’d prefer. In my opinion the word should be reserved for people who make breakthroughs in science, medicine, psychology, philosophy, etc. I’m sure that I’ve referred to Prince as a genius many times. I’ve heard Kanye West referred to as a genius and that was definitely not me. The textbook definition of genius is “a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect.” I suppose someone who is exceptionally creative is, by definition, a genius. The use of the word to describe artists just bothers me. There should be a word that specifically addresses the creative half of the genius equation. Leave the word genius for people like Einstein. For this argument I’m going to refer to a creative genius as a Coltrane.

One quality I think all Coltranes possess is the desire (need?) to push boundaries. Coltranes are never satisfied staying with one sound for too long. They constantly evolve and make us mortals question what we thought was possible. Most I can think of eventually push it so far that the mortals lose their ability to comprehend what’s happening. John Coltrane is the perfect example. He gave us Giant Steps and we thought it couldn’t be topped. Then he pushed even further and gave us A Love Supreme. Eventually he pushed it so far even his contemporaries questioned what he was doing. Nobody questioned his brilliance, but nobody wanted to listen to it either.

The other factor to consider is the listener. Music consumers are only capable of tolerating so much of what they don’t understand before they give up. We’re set in our ways and know what we like to hear. It’s also a given that some people have more tolerance than others for consuming music that challenges them. I like to think I’m more open to Coltranes than most. My prime example here is Kanye West. I loved Kanye’s first three albums. He lost me with 808s & Heartbreak. If you’re cool with autotune you can have that shit. I can’t stand it. I recognize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a brilliant piece of music even if I don’t necessarily love all of it. He started pushing too far past my ability to tolerate change with that album. Yeezus pushed it a little further. After that I gave up. Is Kanye’s ability to make art just that much more advanced than my brain is able to comprehend? Or is he trying too hard to push and at some point he stopped making good music for the sake of sounding different? Probably both. In the case of Kanye West vs. my ears I think the bottom line is just that I love hip hop and somewhere around Dark Twisted Fantasy he stopped making music I recognized as hip hop and started aspiring to something bigger. Luxury hip hop. It didn’t work for me, but more power to him. I respect the effort…I just don’t want to listen to it. I’ll stick with The College Dropout, thanks.

Every so often a Coltrane makes something completely different and unexpected that hits just the right level of creative exploration at the exact time that a listener is ready to consume it. When that happens it goes beyond listening to music. It’s a spiritual experience. No artist gave me experiences like this more in the 2010s than Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino. Glover’s ability to deliver brilliant, innovative art on a wide range of media has been well documented so I’m not going to harp on all of that here. I’m here to write about Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. Shout out to Troy Barnes and Earn Marks, though. No conversation about my favorite television of the 2010s would be complete without Community and Atlanta.

Speaking of Community, I was a fan Glover’s performance on that show in 2011 when I read a short piece in Entertainment Weekly magazine about Donald Glover’s upcoming hip hop album Camp under the name Childish Gambino. I had no idea the guy I loved as Troy Barnes was also making hip hop. I immediately took to the internet and found a long history of mixtapes. First off, for some reason I just assumed that since he was a comedian, comedy writer, and comedic actor that Glover was going to be on some Lonely Island shit. My initial reaction to his music was, “Wait, this isn’t funny…” Let’s just say I found his early mixtapes unremarkable. Certainly nothing I care to put in rotation. A Coltrane has to start somewhere, right? By his fifth mixtape – 2010’s Culdesac – things started clicking. There’s a solid foundation to build on. He was also touring as a standup comedian at that time. He had an entire life outside of Community that I was previously unaware of.

I caught on fast.

His 2011 album Camp became a favorite of mine despite its unevenness and infamous 1.6 score from Pitchfork. Camp symbolized untapped potential to me more than realized greatness. I didn’t love every song on the album, but the good far outweighed the bad. How Pitchfork – a music reviewing site that I love/hate and respect – didn’t see his promise is still a shock to me. Glover leveled up again with 2012’s Royalty mixtape, then realized his potential on 2013’s Because The Internet. His flow and sound caught up to his wit on that album and composer/collaborator Ludwig Göransson’s music and production were next level.

He came back a year later with the underrated STN MTN mixtape paired with an EP called Kauai. STN MTN has some of my favorite Childish Gambino hip hop tracks (have you heard “Candler Road” or “Go DJ” before?), but the music that raised eyebrows here came from Kauai. From the opening track “Sober” it’s obvious that this isn’t a hip hop album. Glover is singing. It’s like he got bored with rapping and moved on to perfect something else.

Speaking of the song “Sober” and perfecting an art form, I can’t think of anyone making better music videos in the past decade than Childish Gambino. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Like everything else he mastered, he didn’t just start with the genius of “This is America.” He built up to it. There was the bizarre horror of “Bonfire.” There was also the bizarre horror of “3005” and let’s not forget the bizarre horror of “Telegraph Ave.” There’s also the bizarre fun of “Sober” and my personal favorite, the just plain bizarre “Sweatpants.” Dude’s music videos are the best. But anyway…

By 2016 I couldn’t wait to see what was next and on December 1 I stayed up for the 11PM Thursday night release (I live in the central time zone, so new shit drops at 11:00 Thursday nights) of Childish Gambino’s third official album “Awaken, My Love!” with no idea what to expect. What I got was a throwback funk album that had to have George Clinton and Bootsy Collins nodding their heads somewhere in reverence. It had Questlove waking D’Angelo in the middle of the night. Like other Coltranes before him, Glover couldn’t just continue making good hip hop records. He kept pushing boundaries. Trying something new. The album earned him five Grammy nominations – including Album of the Year and Record of the Year – and one win.

What has Glover done since? Only create the best show on television – Atlanta – and win a pile of Golden Globe and Emmy awards. In 2018 he released the provocative single and accompanying video for “This is America” which earned him another four Grammy awards including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Video of the Year. In 2020 he quietly released his fourth album, 3.15.20, and it was the first thing Glover did in years that didn’t seem to have critics and the public doing backflips. Maybe because we were all numb and terrified about the looming global pandemic. 3.15.20 came at a time when we needed new art to distract us more than ever, but for me that album will forever be associated with long walks and bike rides alone while trying to avoid other people during the COVID outbreak. It’s a genre-defying album without song titles. You can feel Glover once again pushing that boundary. This may be the first time he’s pushed us too far. I personally loved the album, but not nearly as much as his previous two. Is it happening to another Coltrane? Is Glover taking his art to a place the rest of us aren’t willing or able to follow? I doubt it. I have a hunch that whatever he does next will be, once again, universally regarded as brilliant. However, if we have seen the end of the “Donald Glover is a genius” era and we’re entering the “Has Donald Glover lost it?” era I’ll always appreciate his amazing run as our Coltrane of the 2010s. More on Glover in future posts.

Let’s get into the awards:

Favorite Song

The obvious answer is “Redbone” right? “Redbone” took the world by storm in 2016/2017 despite the fact that most people seemed to think the song was titled “Stay Woke.” I can’t do it. If I say “Redbone” I’m just trying to fit in. If I’m being honest with myself and all of you fine people, my real favorite song from this album is a scorching 2-minute funk explosion titled “Riot.” I say this fully aware that much of “Riot” is borrowed from Funkadelic’s 1975 classic “Good To Your Earhole.” “Riot” builds on the foundation Funkadelic laid down. “Riot” bursts into your earholes from the opening second like it had already started and we showed up late. Glover’s vocals are unbelievable. I mean that literally. It’s difficult for me to believe that someone as creative and gifted as Glover was also blessed with the ability to unleash a guttural scream like few before him. “Riot” is a brilliant, brief lightning bolt of energy and my favorite two minutes of the album.

Favorite Lyric

Have a word for your brother
Have some time for one another
Really love one another
It’s so hard to find

This album is more about the funk than it is the lyrics. One could easily make the argument that the lyrics to the chorus from the album’s second track “Have Some Love” are trite and I wouldn’t necessarily say you’re wrong. I’m a sucker for a song pushing positivity, especially considering the state in which we currently find ourselves. If Childish Gambino wants to create something that injects this much funk and positivity into the world together, I’m all for it. I’ll take all I can get and so should you.

Favorite Slow Jam/Chill Song

No curveball this time. This is definitely “Redbone.” Check out this fantastic performance of “Redbone” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon from January 2017 with Glover proving that not only does he have the vocal chops, but he can also go sans shirt and footwear with sparkly pants and a dope Lando Calrissian mustache whenever he wants.

Ring Walk Song

I’m not a fan of using the same song multiple times, but the correct answer here is “Riot” once again. I mean, it’s called “Riot.” If there was a measurement of the amount of energy per minute in a song “Riot” would score high on that scale. It makes me want to run through a wall. Two minutes of pure fire.

Favorite Happy Song

Stand Tall” is a stunning piece of work to close this album. Once again, Donald Glover delivers an impressive vocal performance. The first two verses are practically acapella. This doesn’t start out as a happy song. It’s deliberately uneasy through the first few choruses and the bridge. After over 4:30 of some beautiful – and at times haunting – music, Glover’s message of “keep all your dreams, keep standing tall. If you are strong you cannot fall,” prevails over Ludwig Göransson’s gorgeous production. An amazing ending to a brilliant album.

Song I’d Play If I Was DJing

A difficult decision on this album. It certainly depends on the vibe you’re going for. If you want something everyone will recognize the answer is, once again, “Redbone.” However, if you just want something to get people dancing, I offer up “Boogieman” as an alternative. It’s funky as hell (as is most of the album) and it’s a better tempo for a party than down-tempo “Redbone.” Plus, it has the word “boogie” right there in the title.

6th Man Award

This is normally where I’d give a shout out to an unsung hero on the album. Ludwig Göransson is nobody’s 6th man, but he certainly deserves a shout out and a large share of credit for this album. Perhaps Childish Gambino is not Donald Glover’s hip hop alter ego, but a name for the duo of Glover and Goransson. There is no Childish Gambino without Göransson’s work. The two worked together on Community where Göransson was in charge of the music. They would write music together during downtime on set. Göransson has produced all of the Childish Gambino albums. He has also scored several movies including Black Panther, for which he won an Academy Award and a Grammy. If these two hadn’t met on the Community set ten years ago I wonder where they’d both be now… If you want to see a cool video of the man at work, check this out. Also, shout out to him for making me learn how to put an umlaut over a letter on my Mac. Respect.

That’s it. I mentioned it above and I’ll say it again: You haven’t seen the last of Donald Glover on this list. I’m finally down to the Top 5! Up next, my favorite album from one of music’s all-time great hit making machines.

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