In 2010 Childish stepped up the musical output and released three different discs: Culdesac, I Am Just a Rapper and I Am Just a Rapper 2. At the same time, his Tinseltown profile was rising on the heels of a newly cast role on Community, which had wrapped its first season in May. With newfound success in acting and growing buzz on the rapping side, Gambino started to notice he was building a true fan base and might be on the right track.
In February 2011, Gambino posted his first video, “Freaks and Geeks”, online, which garnered over 7 million views on YouTube since its release. The following month, he delivered a five-track disc called EP, a brief but polished effort that seemed to indicate the crossover viability of his approach. Over genre-bending self-production, he coupled creative wordplay and singing ability with brutal honesty, vulnerability and dashes of his natural humor. “I kind of look up, as a rapper, to Woody Allen, because he’s honest but it’s also funny,” Gambino says, exhibiting the oddity and nuance of his relationship to hip-hop. “I try to do the same thing with
the albums, to be sincere and honest.”
EP finally drew the attention of record labels and initiated some meetings, including one with Jay-Z and Roc Nation, though nothing materialized. In April, the multi-hyphenate performer headed out on the self-funded IAMDONALD Tour, a 23-date, sold-out excursion on which he brought both music and standup to the stage each night. “A lot of people feel like I feel myself so much that I was like, Donald Glover is so dope he can do a rap album—and I don’t,” he says. “I didn’t wanna do it; I knew it was a bad idea. I went on the IAMDONALD tour, and people were just waiting for Childish Gambino to come out.”
With a palpable buzz and most notions of the “joke rap” label triggered by his pedigree all but devoid, Gambino was billed at Rock the Bells in August, a coveted slot typically offered to performers purported to represent and respect the genre’s essence. It was an acknowledgement, of sorts.
The following month, Gambino signed to Glassnote Records, an indie record label mainly comprised of rock acts distributed by Sony RED Distribution. “He fits in with our roster because he’s alternative,” label founder Daniel Glass told billboard.com about Gambino in September 2011. One of the reasons the young artist chose Glassnote was that he was able to deliver them his album Camp as is and then they would help him deliver it to the masses. No questions asked. When Camp dropped in November, the disc sold more than 50,000 copies the first week and has moved 121,000 to date, proving both that there was a larger musical audience for Childish Gambino, and that it was a gumbo-type mix of fans.
“I like that my crowd is diverse, but it really was speaking to the Black experience,” the rapper says of his debut. That, to him, stretches beyond the streets, clubs or the specific brand of Black nerd-dom that Kanye West introduced last decade.
?uestlove—who has Hollywood familiarity of his own, thanks to his nightly gig on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—provided drums on one of the album’s cuts, and could relate to some of the themes himself. “You could look at it as he’s playing the odd guy out, which I don’t necessarily agree with—I see him as the cool guy,” says The Roots drummer, whose first move upon discovering Gambino’s music in early 2011 was to call Hov. “The thing that makes [Gambino] cool to me is that he’s just not afraid to just be himself. Hip-hop doesn’t really present you with three-dimensional figures—that’s very hard in hip-hop and hard in Black entertainment in general. What’s appealing to people is that he’s not a caricature.”
RZA, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu have all relayed their suppor as well, Gambino says graciously, while fellow buzzing MC Kendrick Lamar used Gambino’s “You Know Me” beat for his November 2010 record “Look Out for Detox.” And radio is catching on to Childish Gambino—a rarity for an independent rap act—as “Heartbeat” has gotten heavy spins all over the U.S., from New York’s Hot 97 to Los Angeles’ KIIS-FM.
Even if he didn’t have those looks, and even as continued Hollywood success begins to feel like a given, as he’s shown time and again, Gambino can’t leave rap alone, even if he tried. “I feel like I’m always on the verge of stopping, where I’m like, I don’t wanna do this anymore,” he says, dismissing the notion. “I think a lot of people thought I started rapping yesterday, and I did it to get a check; they don’t know that I’m losing money. When I was putting out shit before, I paid all the mixers. It was out of pocket. I just like it.”