For many years Donald Glover has been considered the wunderkind of... well... whatever the hell he was attempting at the moment.
It's safe to say he stood out from the very beginning. From those amazing first days of Derrick Comedy (the sketch "Jerry" willed into the pantheon through the sheer commitment and subtle ticks of the performance). He then became a writer for the golden age of 30 Rock (everyone blindly credits him with "writing" Tracy's character, which is as reductive an assumption as you can make. Even Tina Fey said he mostly channeled Kenneth's voice, while her daughter came up with some of Tracy's best stuff). Then Glover started doing standup and in almost no time he built a pretty solid half hour. He then got a job on camera and became a standout star in Community once Harmon and Co. realized his dexterity and how much he could really do (Cue: Donald Glover crying is the funniest thing ever).
In Hollywood terms, he was on fire. Everyone wanted him in their thing. Everyone. But right at the height, he went into music pretty much full time. Yes, he had been working on it already., starting with 2010's fun and goofy Culdesac and I am Just a Rapper EPs, but you could hear a guy who wanted to be taken seriously (even though his strength at the time was clearly in having fun). "Freaks and Geeks" was the turning point song that not only felt like the combination of his humor and harder aspirations, but actually struck a chord with music fans. The following album Camp mostly displayed growing pains, yet by the time Because the Internet came out he was one of the more distinct voices in hip hop. And I'll admit, I thought that would be his path now. That he was finally settling into something he worked so damn hard for.
Then came Atlanta.
Which is not only one of the best shows on television, but one that surprised me. After seeing his short "Clapping for the Wrong Reasons," I will honestly admit that this is a show I never imagined he could make. It's not only perfectly constructed, but so well told, so well-observed, and so understanding of the power of the digressions he seemingly includes off instinct. Formally, it's perfect. I've been thumbing around writing about it for a little bit, but then last night I happened to see that Glover had a new album out. So, I started listening to Awaken, My Love and...
Holy shit, it's a straight soul album. And it's fucking incredible. I thought I might be insane in my evaluation, but then I saw this Questlove post:
questlove: Dude I'm so fucked up right now. I can't even form the proper hyperbolic sentence to explain to D'angleo why I woke him up at 4am to listen to this. I'm like---when is the last time someone sucker punched me on this level.....I mean I knew#AroundTheWorldInADay was coming & it was a left turn---I'm about to blow the wigs off music historians... but I thought I was getting some fresh millennial 2016 hip hop shit and I got sucker punched. The last sucker punch in black music I remember in which NOONE had a clue what was coming was Sly's #TheresARiotGoinOn---read my IG about it (the flag)---I'm writing in real time cause ---Jesus Christ the co-author of #WearwolfBarmitzvah just SONNED the shit outta me. In the best way possible. I was NOT expecting a trip to Detroit circa 1972 at United Sound Studios. I haven't written or been stunned by an album I wasn't expecting since that time I got an advance of #BackToBlack. The music is so lush man, I can see the kaleidoscope color mesh of the #Westbound logo. Dude I can't curb my enthusiasm. All I know is if #P4k try to play him again with these ratings there WILL be a riot goin on.
You look at the tenor of this statement, particularly the "fresh millienial 2016 hip hop shit," you look at the tenor of my earlier comment about Atlanta, you look at the tenor of expectations of his rapping when he started, you look at the tenor of his acting career, you look at the tenor everything... you see the same constant reaction:
"I didn't know he had this in him."
Let's be clear about one thing. Donald Glover is bonafide genius. I suspect we're not quick to say this for a few reasons. One, that's a designation we usually save for egocentric white guys who mostly use it as an excuse to be jerks (random test for you: name the last woman you referred to as a genius). Two, he's young. Three, he's black, so instead people say he's "talented." Which is all bullshit. But it's even more complicated because I think society has a dumb way of looking at genius anyway. Because I would happily argue the mark of genius is not in someone's ability to be good at things immediately. Nobody's good at anything the first time. No, I think the mark of genius is how much they learn between their first failing attempt and their second attempt. And in every attempt thereafter. For every genius I've ever met is an insatiable, fast learner.
And Donald Glover is one of the fastest learners I've ever seen.
Case in point, Atlanta. Because that was not the show he originally pitched way back when. But he spent years trying to get it right, figuring out how to accomplish the vision he was after. This was something built through commitment. Just look at how much earlier work he did with director Hiro Murai in terms of figuring out how their unique tone works. Also, go through all of Glover's albums and you can see him figuring it out, too. Watch the first season of Community and then watch the height of his delightful lunacy in later seasons. Watch his early stand up in comparison to his special. He's not someone who is "just good at everything". He's someone who works insanely hard at everything he puts his mind to.
I've discovered that people don't really like that answer. For not only does the solution of "hard work" just bore people, but the bigger truth is that we like knowing who people are in a more concrete sense. We like having a lock on them. We like putting them in a box and understanding that box. And to me it gets into this whole conversation about identity and artistry. Because while people love to debate whether Kanye is a genius or an idiot, people on both sides are still certain who he is. And in a way, what they're debating is his relative "goodness". But I think people have a different kind of trouble with Glover because they don't know who he "is" as an artist, largely because of the constant change. I remember having a recent conversation with someone about Glover a few years ago when Because the Internet was coming out, and they were having a tough time because they felt Glover had "a strange relationship to his blackness". They wish-washed around what they were saying, but eventually got the point that his relationship with race seemed contradictory when considering the breadth of Glover's career (surprise: this person was white and seemed to like his dorky comedy-friendly origins). One, a "strange" relationship IS a relationship, and two, I want to find that person now and be like "is Atlanta clear enough for you!?!?" I remember this person saying that he had a problem with it feeling like there are infinite Donald Glovers. And how the hell can we relate to infinite? I not only think that is overblown, but I also think Glover's relationship with the world has evolved ten times over, just like everyone's relationship with the culture around them evolves ten times over. We just tend to have more subtle shifts. Meanwhile, Glover's an incredibly rare renaissance figure who must constantly battle a set prism of certain expectations based on the boxes that he explores, some normal, some with the pressures of race, comedy and hip-hop.
And that pretty much sucks.
Because we're missing the best part of it. We're missing the delight that comes in him just straight up aping Bowie in one song on this new album. If we're concentrating on his misdirected performance in The Martian then we're missing how that same person has created one of the best shows on television. We shouldn't care that there have been, and still are, "Infinite Donald Glovers." This is not a crisis, this is a blessing.
Because this is how you get the joy of surprise.