Thinking Back to When Childish Gambino Wasn’t Black Enough

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Donald Glover | c/o Glassnote Records

 

About five years ago I interviewed Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover. It was a two-parter. For the first, I met him at Brooklyn Bowl. It was Halloween 2011 and the actor/musician was performing in costume, dressed as a park ranger in a fitted tan uniform with very short shorts. Glover is Black. At the time, the bulk of his fans were not. I noticed. The next day, while he was on his tour bus headed to Maryland, we spoke on the phone about that, the fact that he was uncool to most average Black Hip-Hop fans, and how his raps about struggling with his African American identity couldn’t win them over—even with artists like Kanye West making it okay to be emotionally available via song.

Childish Gambino: ‘J. Cole and Drake are Way Cooler Than Me’

“Drake wears gold chains,” he explained in stand-up comic fashion. “I could never pull off wearing chains. J. Cole’s been to jail. I haven’t.” Those were, and to some degree still are, the templates of star rappers (not to dismiss the aforementioned rhymers, because they’re talented as hell). And Glover, someone who’d been called “Oreo” because he was Black on the outside but loved “white things” like above the knee shorts, could not relate.

With the 2016 Glover’s had it’s a great time to look back on that interview, to think back to a time when Childish was a middling rapper, part of an ensemble cast on a big NBC comedy, and most importantly, someone who wasn’t Black enough to be embraced by his own people.

In the last few months, Glover’s written and starred in FX comedy Atlanta, which has put a kaleidoscope on a city that’s essentially been seen through the same pair of trap and dance lenses for the last decade by addressing race, class, our judicial system, love and more from several Black perspectives while tossing in enough jokes to make viewers both laugh with and at slice of life stories. Atlanta opened to rave reviews and is bound to clean up during awards season (Glover won Best Actor in a Comedy at last weekend’s Critics Choice Awards, then the show was nominated for two Golden Globes).

And two weeks ago, Gambino released his third proper album, Awaken, My Love. It’s a funk-soul record absent of any rapping, just woozy falsettos and sobering lyrics reflective of the experience his not-so-famous peers live daily. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart.

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.

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Both Atlanta and My Love are evidence of Glover’s intrinsic Blackness. Nothing on Atlanta feels forced or effort-packed. Nothing about Gambino’s foray to funky town sounds pretentious (Complex didn’t agree. But Questlove, who plays a vital role in D’Angelo’s output loves it. So I’ll side with Quest). It all rings true. If there was a part of him that ever felt it needed validation from the Black community that hated on (or maybe worse, pretended he didn’t exist) Gambino because he was too white or not “down” enough, I hope it’s long been filled with self-assurance. With the success Glover’s had this year, it’s evident that he’s always been down and it’s the folks who labeled him lame that are the corny ones. Just look at him singing “Redbone,” for crying out loud.

In 2017 Donald has a role in Spiderman: Homecoming and in the next installment of Star Wars as a young Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams was the original). He returns with season two of Atlanta and likely will go on tour for My Love. Not bad for an awkward Black boy. So while he’s still apt to do interviews with his feet out, let’s not question which culture he’s most connected with. He’ll always be a top pick in the Black delegation’s racial draft if I have anything to do with it.

‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Family and Why I Woke Up With It on My Mind

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Nocturnal Animals poster | c/o Focus Films

 

How monstrous would someone have to be to you before you too became a monster?

I ask because I just saw Nocturnal Animals, the Tom Ford-directed thriller (I’m legit amazed that the world-renowned clothing designer makes movies this well, too). This week it was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay Golden Globe awards.

In it, ex-husband Edward (and fledgling writer) and wife Susan (a realist) reconnect when he sends her an early version of his new book, Nocturnal Animals. The novel’s main character Tony looks to get revenge on a trio of wild Texans after they harass his family, and that’s a huge undersell for the sake of you all who’ve yet to see it yet.

While focused on the story within the story, we also have flashbacks of how the exes’ love first grew, then fizzled. There’s a synergy between both narratives. Edward and Tony are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. And when Tony says lines like “Nobody gets away with what you did,” as he does to one of those nutbag criminals towards the end of the film, it can easily be spun and applied to Susan and how she broke up her marriage to Edward. Back to those bad guys, though.

Again, I’m going to keep away from spoilers, but they’re looney bin psycho, with zero remorse for their wrongs. And from the time they’re introduced, Animals becomes a tension-packed movie. They enter Tony’s life by running him, his wife and mouthy daughter off a desolate dirt road, making it clear that, at the very least, a carjacking will occur—if not the absolute worst.

While watching the movie on our couch (getting screeners during awards season is one of the perks of dating a Hollywood writer and Writers Guild member), my fiancee and I traded remarks about how icky the confrontations made us feel. It’s super fun to get those feelings from fiction. At one point she even got squeamish, similar to how Michael Jackson’s girlfriend in Thriller was before she left Mike alone in the theater watching that horror movie. She made it through, though.

At several moments in the movie, Tony had opportunities to fight, shoot, or kill his adversaries, but didn’t. And it wasn’t because of “I’m taking the high road”/“God will handle them”/“Killing is wrong.” reasoning. He couldn’t do it because he was scared. His own fear haunts and hurts him throughout Animals. And he won’t have any semblance of peace until he conquers it.

There’s a particularly gripping part of the movie when he breaks down, crying while wondering aloud about why he’s so weak, contemplating what he should have done when the devils stared him down. By the way, Gyllenhaal’s performance was incredible, as is Michael Shannon’s in his supporting role (I hope he nabs an Oscar nom’ for this after missing out on a Globe look).

When I woke up the following morning, I sat in bed and stared at the ceiling for a bit, wondering who I’d become if my life took a drastic turn one night and I was in Tony’s shoes. How would I react if someone close to me was hurt by some kook? Would I become Batman or cower in fear? Would I hold a load of hurt inside only for it to boil over and blast off at random? If the time came to face that one person, who would I be?

I’m pretty confident that I’m not to be trifled with on that level, that whoever crosses me to the degree that Tony suffers through would deeply regret doing so because holy intervention is the only way I could be peeled off being on their ass. My family members being harmed would probably take me far past turn the other cheek territory. That mindset is more-so reserved for life’s trivialities—an insult here, an argument with no resolution there. I can be “the better man” then. However, messing with my family means it’s time to get uncivilized.

That could all just be tough talk, though. How can you really ever be sure? I have no reference point, except that time when an older bully took my little sister’s backpack and I snatched it back in front of all the kids and parents at our bus stop one elementary school afternoon ages ago. This ain’t that.

Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful watch, with great cinematography. There’s a load of great shots, whether they’re with Tony in the desert or in Susan’s chic modern Los Angeles home. The only scene I didn’t like visually is one restaurant conversation where the camera cuts to each person and never gives us a two shot. Even then, I’m assuming Ford chose that for the uneasiness it caused. If so, kudos. It very much so made me feel uneasy as fuck.

As did the movie overall. I love when movies do that to me. I can’t remember the last movie that made me wake up the next day and wonder if I could do Batman things or if revenge is something I could ever crave in ways I’ve only read about in comic books.

Could you?

Go see it Nocturnal Animals. Then let’s talk about it.

Fun Facts About The-Dream from my Billboard Q&A

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The-Dream | shot by Miguel Starcevich | c/o Roc Nation

 

The-Dream just dropped his Love You to Death EP, so I talked to him for a bit for Billboard. It ended up being an awesome, lengthy convo that topically ranged from his theory on why dating sucks for young Black men, taking artistic risks, and why more colleges should have Male Studies courses.

The-Dream on Love You To Death EP: “I’m Trying to Find the Rest of the Things That Make Me Whole”

There’s also a bunch of insight on his contributions to Beyonce’s Lemonade, Rihanna’s Anti, Solange’s A Seat at the Table and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Here are some fun (and one not-so-fun) facts from the talk:

  • Dream’s a painter! Jay-Z and Beyonce both own Terius Nash originals.
  • He wanted to make a Purple Rain-esque movie for his first album Love Hate.
  • Solange LOVES “Fancy“!
  • He was dumped by his prom date.

Give it a read.

Random Thoughts I Had While Playing The Weeknd’s ‘Starboy’ Album

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The Weeknd’s Starboy album cover | c/o Republic Records

 

In the music biz statistics confirm success, but not always quality. A lot of crappy tunes become hits. I can’t fully explain why yet. Hey, shit happens. So it’s refreshing when a good project does something noteworthy in the numbers department.

In the last few days The Weeknd’s Starboy album has racked up plays and purchases and the first wave of tallies resulted in the Toronto singer-songwriter breaking the global record for first-week streams on Spotify, with more than 223 million streams. It also broke their one-day record, with 40 million streams in 24 hours. To boot, Starboy opened at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. So he obviously killed it on the scoreboard.

There’s so much I enjoyed about several of Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye’s 18-song newbie. His sound, which I used to describe as Sade-like—if she had done hard drugs, dwelled in the underworld and adored classic horror flicks—has broadened to shimmering ’80s pop while also staying true to his core. Here are some random, though fitting, thoughts I’ve had while listening to Starboy.

“Starboy” – Somebody woke up feeling theirself!  It’s so fun hearing Weeknd’s gentle Ethiopian  voice stunt so hard and talk his shit. His main and side chicks are out of your league.  New Edition is who he’s playing while he’s whipping his Bentley Mulsanne. G’ shit. Been enjoying his promo performances. That American Music Awards showing is the best of the bunch. I wish Daft Punk produced for me people, like on the Disclosure work-for-hire or complilation tip.

Random Thoughts I Had While Playing Bruno Mars ’24K Magic’ Album

“Reminder” – This isn’t my favorite track overall on the album (might be my fifth), but it  hits the hardest lyrically. From jump he’s on the assault, swinging on radio DJs that are more apt to play “blue-eyed soul” before his songs. I’m always intrigued by successful people who are still woke enough to know that the game is not all the way fair. This isn’t some rookie act crying foul. The Weeknd spent all of 2015 becoming a legit, pop chart-topping artist. Still, on the follow-up to the album that likely gave him the confidence to call himself a Starboy, he’s giving corny, racist music business gatekeepers the side-eye, like, “I see you.” Love that.

The first verse on “Reminder” is about how he achieved massive success while staying true to himself. “I let my black hair grow and my weed smoke,” he says. If you had asked me years ago if the House of Balloons guy with the Basquiat hair would become a pop star, I would have said something like, “Hope so” and put my hands in prayer position, because only God could make Dark Side MJ a Hot 100 killer. And that he did. Weeknd just cut his locks a few months ago.

And he’s fully aware of how crazy it is that he was able to make a song featuring a cocaine -reference in the hook hit record, one that Nickelodeon nominated for Best Song at their 2016 Teen Choice awards. It’s hilarious. “Starboy” also boasts a drug lyric in the hook, where his girl sees coke on the table, then “clean[s] it with her face/ Man, I love my baby.” Clearly, he’s still the same guy from his House of Balloons mixtape days, not at all concerned about cleaning up his content for fame. He’s winning on his terms. I can appreciate that.

Also, what’s the more cringe-inducing (though somehow fun) line—Abel’s “Got a sweet Asian chick/ She go low, mayne”  (Get it? Lo Mein, like the Asian dish) or Drake’s “Shout out to Asian girls/ Let the lights dim some” (Get it? Dim Sum, like the Asian dish) from “Over My Dead Body”?

“Secrets” – Can’t separate the rhythm of this song from 112’s “Dance With Me.” Take a break and watch the guys dance in oversized Adidas tracksuits. The clip’s tucked inside their video for “Peaches and Cream.”

“True Colors” – The song in a nutshell: “Pull all the skeletons out of your closet, sit them right here on the couch with us. I promise not to trip.”

“Starboy Interlude” – The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey’s characters get hot next to the microwave and stove. Made me think of Kellz’s classic.

“Sidewalks” – This would have been a solid song without Kendrick’s raps. I love the western feel the guitar rift adds. But this feature might be one of the best guest appearances of 2016—definitely the top verse of Kendrick’s year as a wingman. On top of the bars being top notch, he’s actually following along with the Starboy theme. I can tell he put actually thought into this verse, which is not a surprise when it comes to Mr. Lamar. Was cool learning how this cut came together.

“Love to Lay” – I’m a sucker for warm synth keys. The Weeknd makes great ‘80s pop.

“A Lonely Night” – More ‘80s pop. This guy’s really good at hiding totally unpleasant conversations in danceable tracks. Imagine hearing this for this first time and bouncing along to the beat only to find out on a deeper listen that he’s telling a girl that she was just a one night stand “and if I led you on, then I apologize.” Oh, wow. Bummer. The mood of his instrumentals and the message they relay have an interesting relationship. In that regard, this is some “Billie Jean” Trojan Horse wizardry.

“All I Know” – Trap drums on thump. Futcha Hendrix being Futcha Hendrix is always welcome.

🔴

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“Die For You” – Might be the first time on the album that he’s fully vulnerable and it’s epic. One of my favorite three songs on Starboy. What about someone would make you die for them? What would factor into that decision.

“I Feel It Coming” – Daft Punk open and close the Starboy story. The disco vibes are strong here. As are the Michal Jackson-esque vocals. His lyrics towards a girl who’s a bit fearful of what love brings are softer and just aggressive enough to let her know he’s the one. It’s a sexy, smooth dance closer. “Coming” is the finale of his short film MANIA, which is worth its 12 minutes. The first few of them remind me of Kanye West’s Runaway film. Somehow, Starboy starts with Weeknd being a supremely confident bad-ass kingpin and it ends with its star charmingly delivering his version of “Rock With You.”  What a trip.