When Childish Gambino—or is it Donald Glover?—announced the title of his second album, because the internet, last month, it seemed to be in tune with his quirky, comedic persona that has served him so well as a writer and actor for a series of NBC shows and on his debut album, 2011′s Camp. The first indication that things would be different this time around came in the early evening of October 14.
Over the period of about a half hour, he posted a series of photos of handwritten notes on Instagram, with thoughts that ranged from “I’m afraid of the future” to “I’m scared I will never reach my potential.” It was a very real moment—honest, he would call it—and one that is rarely seen these days from mainstream artists in any lane, much less in hip-hop. The range of reactions from fans and onlookers ran the gamut: letters of support, posts appreciating his candidness, people clowning him for being a bitch, others conjecturing that he may be suicidal. After the posts, his Instagram went silent for two weeks.
It was a week later that the first single from his new album, “3005,” dropped, the second indication that things were different this time. “Sorry, I’m just scared of the future,” went one line; “Man, nobody out here’s got it figured out / So therefore, I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending” went another. “That’s what it’s about—building on something you’ve never seen,” he said during an interview at the XXL offices recently. He explained the rationale—that we’ll never see the year 3005, that we don’t know what we’re building towards—with an analogy. “I’m sure the people who built the pyramids did not know what they were doing,” he said. “You’re just building these great, amazing things. What is this for? Who is this for? I don’t know. So I’m just trying to enjoy whatever this is.”
In the XXL offices, he played more music from because the internet; songs that included lines like, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” and, “What’s the line between Donny G and Gambino?” The whole time, he sat next to the speakers, reading a book that included selections from Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Kafka. It couldn’t have been more clear: Donald Glover—or is it Childish Gambino?—is trying to figure it all out.
“I don’t want to be a rapper,” he said, minutes after he played selections from his genre-bending—yet still hip-hop—album. “Rappers can only go so far…I think this is my superpower. I wanna do something dope.”
With his new album slated to come out December 10, Gambino—or Glover—is certainly on the right path. But the thing he keeps coming back to is the question of what, exactly, that path entails, where it leads, what the point of walking down it even is. What people think of him as he walks it. What he thinks of himself as he continues. “I’m afraid people hate who I really am,” he said in one of his Instagram notes. “I’m afraid I hate who I really am.” On this album, Childish Gambino is just trying to be the best Donald Glover he can be—or vice versa. Maybe he’ll never figure it out. But who ever does? —Dan Rys (@danrys)