We Ain’t Them

I distinctly remember sending my brother an e-mail about Donald Glover many years ago saying, “To me, this guy is the genius that everyone claims Kanye West is.”  I’m paraphrasing, but that was the message.  I wish I could find it so I had proof.  Now Kanye is rocking MAGA hats married to a Kardashian and making weak music trying to stay relevant.  Donald Glover is raking in Grammys and Emmys while creating the best show on TV and stealing the spotlight in Star Wars movies.  I can’t say I saw all of that coming.  I was just trying to get my brother to listen to Childish Gambino.  In hindsight, that was probably too much praise for his 2011 album, Camp.  It’s an inconsistent album, but the potential was obviously there.  As much as I liked the album I was just pulling for Donald Glover because I loved him as Troy on Community.  Pitchfork gave Camp a 1.6 out of 10.  Idiots.

I think the early Gambino mixtapes are difficult to listen to, but with each one you can hear improvement.  He might look like Jabari Parker, but he’s more like the hip hop Giannis.  Every new album and track gets better.  By the time the Culdesac mixtape came out in 2010 he was coming in to his own.  Then in early-2011 came EP with “Freaks and Geeks” and it went from, “Troy made a funny song,” to, “Oh shit, Donald Glover is dope!”

Next came the aforementioned Camp, which earned him even more recognition.  Two years later came Because the Internet and he blew up.  Grammy nominations.  Another dope mixtape.  Atlanta.  A crate of Emmys.  Awaken, My Love!  You know the rest.  The year before Because the Internet made him a household name, he quitely snuck in another mixtape.  It dropped just eight months after Camp in mid-2012 while I was still rocking “Bonfire” nonstop.

The mixtape is called Royalty and, for me, this was the music that elevated him to elite status.  Tracks feature the likes of RZA, Ghostface, Beck, and Chance the Rapper among others.  The best track – my favorite Gambino track – is the first one (after the 9-second intro).  Three minutes of optimistic, defiant self-reflection called “We Ain’t Them”.  The music itself features a series of spaced-out chords, a heavy bass drum and hand claps all courtesy of Ludwig Göransson.  Glover tells stories of a night out with Questlove coming to grips with their mortality and breaking the news to his parents that he was going to quit his writing job on 30 Rock.  He comes away from everything with his confidence in himself unshaken.

Speak from your heart and never compromise what you feel is real

And never let these white people tell you how to feel

Never let anybody tell you how to feel

Coincidentally he borrows a line from Kanye West’s track “I Wonder” when he asks, “I’m a star, how could I not shine?”  Everything about this song – the vibe, the lyrics, the beat, the personality – makes it the perfect workout song for me.  When I spent 18 glorious months as a distance runner a few years ago I started EVERY run with this song.  I dream about standing at the bottom of the hill on Allouez Avenue before sunrise with air cool enough so I could see my breath.  I’d look up the hill, put my earbuds in, press play, and go.  I might start out sluggish and half-asleep, but by the end of the song when he declares, “If there something on your chest, let it out.  I’m the best…” I’d be going full speed.

Then I injured my foot.  Too much running.  Never thought in a million years that would happen to me.  Hearing, “You need to stop running so much,” seemed about as likely as, “You need to stop flying to Mars.”  Achilles surgery followed.  Complacency settled in.  Last year my wife and I signed up for a half marathon and then she was diagnosed with cancer.  It’s really no excuse for me…but I’ll just say it’s been kind of shitty 2018.  My heart and my mind were not in to marathon training.  Now her chemo is over.  She’ll be done with radiation soon.  All signs point to a clean bill of health for her.  If that’s not motivation, what is?

10 days ago we signed up for the same half marathon again.  This sedentary shit is killing me…figuratively and probably literally.  The run isn’t until late-June, but my early mornings with “We Ain’t Them” started again last week.  Gotta get that feeling back.  I need you, Childish Gambino.  Let’s GOOOOOOOOOOOO!