I?m going to see Childish Gambino (and Vince Staples!) in thirteen days, and I?m pumped to see him on the last tour that he?s known as such [4/2/20 update: I didn?t get to see him). As I?ve written before, and I?m really not trying to be a hipster calling ?FIRST!? on a YouTube video, but I?ve been a fan of Donald Glover since his days with Derrick Comedy and when he was making his first, rough mixtapes. And since I?m going to see him on some kind of tour that is, in some respects, the culmination of a musical career that began a decade ago, I thought I?d rank all 13 [14, as of March 22, 2020] of his releases: the three [four] studio albums, seven mixtapes, and three EPs. And since ?This Is America? isn?t represented on any of these releases (I?m sure it?ll be on the next album)[it wasn?t], I?ll just make clear that I think it?s one of his best songs, if not the best.
Updated 4/2/20 to include 3.15.20
#14 ? ROYALTY (2012)
Favorite track: ?Shoulda Known?
ROYALTY marked a stylistic shift from the indie/alternative sampling Childish Gambino had used on his mixtapes. It was a prologue to what I consider the more conventional contemporary hip hop sound elevated on BECAUSE THE INTERNET, and it featured an insane number of great guest artists like RZA, Ghostface Killah, Chance the Rapper, and Schoolboy Q. All the same, it?s Gambino?s least unique release, a broad array of great beats and lyrical braggadocio. Neither are unique to ROYALTY, but their impact is lessened due to the non-stop energy of the mixtape. It?s still great, and a phenomenally produced mixtape, but it?s, ironically, the most safe of Gambino?s releases.
#13 ? STN MTN (2014)
Favorite track: ?All Yall?
STN MTN, the mixtape flipside of the whole concept record of STN MTN/KAUAI, is an ode to southern hip hop and, like ROYALTY, a more conventional release in being so. Chronicling a dream of running Atlanta, STN MTN maybe samples the most ?traditional? hip hop songs of any other Gambino mixtape? It?s another minor work in the canon. Not many of the songs really speak to me like Gambino?s other stuff, although like ROYALTY, STN MTN is produced beautifully, thanks in part to the awesome creative partnership between Glover and COMMUNITY (2009?2015), CREED (2015), and BLACK PANTHER (2018) composer Ludwig Gransson, a constant force in Gambino?s music.
#12 ? I AM JUST A RAPPER 2 (2010)
Favorite track: ?Get It (Tightrope)?
Part two of the I AM JUST A RAPPER ?saga,? this mixtape sees Gambino rapping over some great songs like Yeasayer?s ?Tightrope? and Washed Out?s ?Feel It All Around.? Unfortunately, those two songs in question (Gambino?s ?Get It? and ?Different?) are pretty much the only standout tracks. I AM JUST A RAPPER 2 is pretty much just the weaker half of a larger effort, but it?s still enjoyable.
#11 ? SICK BOI (2008)
Favorite track: ?Love Is Crazy?
Before I sat down to make this list, I thought SICK BOI would be the leading candidate for the worst Gambino release (which, as I?ve pointed out with ROYALTY, is still good!). But revisiting the first mixtape from Donald Glover (who didn?t know he would continue to release music as Childish Gambino), I wasn?t put off as much by the nasal delivery of his first few years as a rapper. There?s a reason why everyone wondered if Glover was constructing a huge elaborate joke with his hip hop career, which is fair also considering the bragging, very crass persona that he crafted. Even still, he came out on the scene with an impressive flow and utilized some cool beats and samples, most notably on ?Love Is Crazy,? which features improv comedian and actor Eugene Cordero with a great verse.
#10 ? SUMMER PACK (2018)
Favorite track: ?Summertime Magic?
To be honest, I don?t know if SUMMER PACK totally classifies as a full ?release? even in the context of an EP, since it?s only made up of two songs. But my guide and lord Wikipedia categorizes it as an EP, and the songs aren?t necessarily separate single releases. Anyways. It?s kind of splitting hairs. It?s worth mentioning, though, in the wake of Glover/Gambino?s huge popularity born from ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? ?Summertime Magic? and ?Feels Like Summer? are both great, somewhat relaxing tropical R&B tracks that, together, serve as an interesting counterpoint to the cultural phenomenon that was ?This Is America? earlier in the summer.
Favorite track: ?42.26?
I swear there is an album cover here, it?s just an off-white square.
Well, for once I can?t be accused of recency bias. Maybe reverse recency bias, I don?t know. In any event, my evaluation of 3.15.20 feels conflicted. 3.15.20 is presumably named after its surprise release on donaldgloverpresents.com on March 15, 2020, where it was streaming on a loop for just about a day before being taken down. Up until that point, people were calling the record ?DONALD GLOVER PRESENTS,? indicating the move away from the Childish Gambino moniker to the rapper?s real name. But the album was surprise released a second time, this time as a 12-track version, via streaming services a week later on March 22, and bore its current name and the standard byline. Bizarrely, all the tracks except two, ?Algorhythm? and ?Time,? are named simply by their time code on the album; hence 0.00 for the opening track and 53.49 for the final one. Complicating matters is ?42.26,? previously released as ?Feels Like Summer? on SUMMER PACK; ?This Is America? is not on 3.15.20, as I expected it to be. No, instead, 3.15.20 is Gambino?s most experimental record yet, a spacey, stripped down production that still has more to do with his post-?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? career than his hip hop beginnings. It?s been pointed out that it feels like Gambino is emulating Prince on the record, and I believe that rings true. There?s some great stuff on 3.15.20. But it never reaches the catchy highs of the following releases, producing only a few songs currently worth remembering. Taken as a whole, though, 3.15.20 is an interesting, atmospheric experiment. It?s just simply not the first, or second, or I guess even eighth Childish Gambino release I would think to listen to.
#8 ? I AM JUST A RAPPER (2010)
Favorite track: ?New Prince (Crown on the Ground)?
I AM JUST A RAPPER is almost shockingly, incredibly better than its ?sequel.? I AM JUST A RAPPER 2 isn?t bad, but its preceding mixtape is a thorough, consistently good run. The songs Gambino raps over are wisely curated, creating a great flow through the album itself as much as he creates a great flow over the individual tracks. ?New Prince (Crown on the Ground)? is the best example of this synergy. If you haven?t noticed yet, or might have noticed with the collective ?favorite songs? for each album, I tend to gravitate to Childish Gambino?s slower, funkier songs, the (at least) a few R&B tracks on any one album. But ?New Prince? injects energy straight into my veins.
#7 ? POINDEXTER (2009)
Favorite track: ?Sunshine?
Like SICK BOI, I thought Gambino?s second mixtape would fare less favorably. But there are a greater number of legitimately great songs on POINDEXTER than on any release on this list so far. It continued the semi-comic persona from SICK BOI, and Glover would increasingly comment on the negative reception his Gambino work would receive from hardcore hip hop and rap fans. Regardless of all that, POINDEXTER is a mixtape with a surprising amount of depth, from the brash ?Extraordinary? to the bright, fun ?Sunshine.? Pretty much every other track is playlist-worthy (my measure of a good song), and the rest are crucial transition points for the tape?s diversity as well.
#6 ? KAUAI (2014)
Favorite track: ?Sober?
The second part to the STN MTN concept release, the KAUAI EP is a refreshing turn to R&B sounds that beautifully illustrates the record?s very concept. In it, Gambino wakes up from an Atlanta-based dream to the beauty of Kauai. No track communicates that transition better than its first track, the ethereal, pretty sexy ?Sober,? which breaks down into an awesome bridge. There?s some cool guitar work on the track, foreshadowing some of the sound for ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? and probably informing the collaboration with the inimitable Gary Clark Jr. ?Retro [Rough]? is a remix of another favorite, SICK BOI?s ?Love Is Crazy,? and the whole EP is another demonstration of Gambino?s ability to fuse a cohesive feel for his best records. It?s also worth mentioning that it?s a great look into Glover?s developing vocal skills that, while always impressive on even my favorite R&B tracks from previous albums, would really come to the fore on ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!?
#5 ? EP (2011)
Favorite track: ?My Shine?
I might be wrong, but I feel like EP?s ?Freaks and Geeks? was the breakout song for Childish Gambino, at least on a larger niche level. At least, it should have been; it?s a great song with a cool long take music video. But ?My Shine? is the best fusion of Gambino?s aggression and sing-songy serenading, and EP is a near-perfect, well, EP. Every track is gold, so in terms of some kind of grade or proportion, EP is at 100%.
#4 ? BECAUSE THE INTERNET (2013)
Favorite track: ?I. Flight of the Navigator?
And even though it?s the better release, BECAUSE THE INTERNET is not at 100%. That?s simply because there?s a lot of filler. Childish Gambino?s second studio album/major record label release gave the artist a surge in popularity, but I have a complex relationship with it. It came out at a time when I wasn?t as dialed into Glover?s career, so I missed it for some years, in spite of the fact that I think it truly gave him mainstream attention that was cemented by ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? and appearances in movies like SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) and SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018). But I?m a sucker for a concept record, even if I think the internet-based commentary is inherently a bit dated or potentially hacky. But Gambino pulls off communicating a sense of frenzy, sadness, and reflection, all of which the internet can facilitate, with this 19-track record. There aren?t many individual tracks that I feel a particular affinity for (although ?I. Flight of the Navigator? is a magical, wistful portent of even greater things to come), but the whole of the release is very impressive, especially considering the heights Glover would reach.
#3 ? CAMP (2011)
Favorite track: ?That Power?
2011 was probably my peak for Donald Glover infatuation. Well, besides right now, I guess. Between CAMP, the next release on this list, COMMUNITY, and revived interest in Derrick Comedy videos, I?m strangely already feeling a bit of nostalgia. As Gambino?s first label release, CAMP may have been his most polished record to date. There?s a great range of emotions here, mixing Childish?s stunting with Donald?s self-reflection. The constant contradiction of the Gambino persona is clearest on CAMP, and that?s rendered beautifully in ?That Power,? a great track with an incredible closing monologue. But, like EP, I lock into pretty much every track on the album. CAMP, and CULDESAC, represented the evolution of Gambino?s music from a fun side project to a visionary commitment.
#2 ? CULDESAC (2010)
Favorite track: ?These Girls?
But before he did that on CAMP, Gambino did it on CULDESAC, a beautiful mixtape that just barely misses the top spot on this list. When I think of what I like about Donald Glover and Childish Gambino, my mind goes to the tracks on CULDESAC. It cemented Gambino?s reputation of rapping over indie music, but it?s not exclusively strings and guitar rock. CULDESAC is a diverse release, and that word keeps coming up for a reason; Glover-Gambino contains multitudes. ?These Girls,? featuring personal favorites Garfunkel & Oates, is a beautiful ode to a subject that the Gambino persona would often treat a lot less delicately: women. And so does ?So Fly.? But ?Difference,? ?Hero,? ?I Be on That,? and other songs make clear that Gambino can still get dirty. CULDESAC is phenomenal, all the more so considering its status as a ?mixtape.? This is why Childish Gambino is my favorite rapper/hip hop artist out there.
#1 ? ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? (2016)
Favorite track: ?California?
And ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? is the reason why he?s one of my favorite musical artists period. The smash record that brought Glover to a new stratosphere of fame, respect, and musical evolution came out of left field for me, as someone who had dropped the ball and missed BECAUSE THE INTERNET. Many people point out that ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? isn?t even really a rap or hip hop record, which is true. It leans much more into R&B and funk to incredible results, evoking the best sounds of the 1970s and updating them into modern pop sensibilities. More than any other of his albums, ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? encapsulates Gambino?s fascination with the concept record, evoking a smooth, yet slightly dark, dreamscape. That?s driven home by the incredible album artwork. But the ?sudden? transition into this style of music, which some like to call ?more? than hip hop as if hip hop is a base genre, isn?t so sudden. ?AWAKEN, MY LOVE!? may swing the Glover-Gambino contradictions closer to the former (as far as I can tell as the man has become increasingly enigmatic), but it still does what the musician has always done best: fuse styles and defy expectations.
I?m positively shaking in my boots with excitement for the upcoming Childish Gambino show [damn, can?t believe I didn?t get to go]. He?s one of the most exciting artists in music today. And while ?Childish Gambino? may be going away [the moniker didn?t, at least not yet], I?m fascinated to see what the next part of Donald Glover?s musical odyssey will bring.