For a rapper who has yet to release his first official album, Childish Gambino gets recognized a lot. While sipping green tea and picking at a plate of soft-boiled eggs in a New York City café (”When you have to take care of your voice, you can’t have anything fun,” he notes wryly), Gambino, 28, is interrupted by an excited young woman who asks him for a photo. He takes it in stride and gamely throws his arm around her shoulders for a snapshot.
Of course, the girl isn’t giddy over Childish Gambino, up-and-coming MC. She’s just psyched to shake hands with Donald Glover, veteran of the 30 Rock writing team, costar of NBC’s Community, and owner of one killer nom de hip-hop.
”I got drunk one night and was freestyling,” the single Stone Mountain, Ga., native explains, laughing. ”I put my name into the [online] Wu-Tang Name Generator and Childish Gambino came out, so I started rapping with it. People were laughing, and it just stuck.”
His alter ego may have begun as a goof, but his rhyming skills are for real. Camp, due on indie-minded Glassnote Records (also home to Mumford & Sons and Phoenix), offers up a serious display of lyrical prowess, heartbreaking autobiographical details, and brutally dark humor (sample: ”I made the beat, then murdered it/Casey Anthony”). Cinematic production — crafted by Glover himself — buoys Gambino’s profound sense of alienation, a tone he has honed for the past six years while building beats on his laptop and dropping home-brewed mixtapes.
Not that he has anything against humor in hip-hop; ”Lil Wayne albums are funny,” he says sincerely, ”and Kanye albums are hysterical.” But he wasn’t interested in making a comedy rap record. And he’s well aware of the stigma attached to Hollywood types who dabble in music just because they can: ”It’s not like I was on Community and I was like, ‘You know, this is a great platform to rap.’ Like, no, it’s an awful platform to rap! No one wants to hear rap from an actor, especially when there’s all these other ones out there. So in order for people to really see something, I have to say something different — I had to be honest or I’d fail.”
Whether or not Camp lands him in the Hot 100, he already has some influential fans: ”[Roots drummer] ?uestlove called me and was like, ‘Man, this s— is hot! Jay wants to talk to you.’ I was like, ‘Jay who?’ He said, ‘Jay-Z. Hov!’ That blew my mind. People are reaching out — I just did something for Nelly Furtado, and I’ve been talking to Kid Cudi — but the truth is that it’s easy to do collaborations. The formula I’ve found is to make an album an album. I don’t know if it’s going to be a gigantic success or not, but I’m superproud of it.” And if all else fails, he can certainly fall back on that whole comedy thing — and maybe get some rest. ”I just don’t sleep,” he confesses of his current multimedia schedule. ”But I can’t do this when I’m 40. Opportunity is finite.”