Although actors who rap are not an anomaly in today’s multifaceted world of entertainment, Donald Glover has, in a seemingly swift amount of time, amassed both critical and mass adulation behind both of his careers. As Troy on NBC’s sleeper-comedy Community, Glover possesses a sort of impishly cocksure disposition that strikes a chord with viewers. Likewise, as the rapper Childish Gambino, Glover brims with bravado, unafraid to take on the naysayers “It’s Nas’ Illmatic not Eddie Murphy’s Delirious“) while rapping over tracks by Adele. Since 2008, Glover has released six critically acclaimed mixtapes while simultaneously continuing his day job at NBC Studios. His is a storied career worth tracing from its inception.
In 2007, while studying at New York University, Glover and friends formed an Internet sketch comedy troupe called Derrick Comedy. Alongside co-creators Dominick Dierkes and DC Pierson, Glover crafted a series of virally explosive videos including the still popular “Bro Rape” and “National Spelling Bee.” All three founders were trained at Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre in New York, but pocketed their improv skills in favor of tightly written skits that crackle with originality. The group’s skits are irreverent and goofy, but surprisingly well conceived and skewering, considering that its creators were only students at the time. The group’s feature film, Mystery Team, landed in early 2010, but Glover has mentioned that he has no intention of leaving behind the grassroots videos that gave him his first brush with stardom.
Writer for ’30 Rock’
After writing for The Daily Show during his senior year at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, Glover graduated and moved on to greener pastures, trading in Jon Stewart for Tina Fey. A self-described Fey-fanboy (“I was like, you wrote ‘Schweddy Balls!’ he recalls telling her), the young writer spent three years as part of 30 Rock’s staff. He made several cameo appearances throughout the show’s first three seasons, but felt like his work was becoming more strenuous than fun. “It’s like banging your head against a wall” he told the NY Daily News about writing. He still calls on the experience frequently for inspiration. On “The Last,” Glover raps that “this next part sounds like nonsense / but I swear to God, Tina Fey gave me confidence.”
Before making the jump to Community, Glover spent a chunk of time touring the country in search of comedic revelations. Performing for small audiences in tiny nightclubs and bars, the boy wonder honed his craft in a back to the basics approach. His UCB training couldn’t have hurt; in fact, in 2010, Comedy Central aired Glover’s first special, and the network plans to air its sequel (WEIRDO) in November of this year. Glover still makes time to tour the nation as a standup, performing to a hugely packed tent at this summer’s Bonnaroo Festival. Aubrey Plaza, star of NBC’s Parks and Recreation (and fellow star of Mystery Team), credits Glover as the inspiration behind her standup career, which subsequently led to her appearance in Adam Sandler’s Funny People.
In 2008, Glover auditioned for Saturday Night Live in the hopes of dazzling Lorne Michaels with his Barack Obama impression. Though the job never came to fruition, Michaels liked the comedian and nudged Community creator Dan Harmon to watch the rising star’s movie. Harmon loved it, and snatched up Glover for the role of Troy, a good-natured, high school football star and resident goofball of Greendale Community College. Alongside his sidekick Abed (played by Danny Pudi), Troy serves up the ethos of the show (Google “Donald Glover crying” for a good laugh); sure, Troy may be the guy who named the monkey that lives in the air vents “Annie’s Boobs” (after Alison Brie’s neurotic Annie), but Harmon allows viewers brief glimpses into the washed-up jock’s slowly transforming self-confidence. And hey, who else can say that they’ve rapped on TV with Betty White (the wonderful reprise to Troy and Abed’s season-one show stealer “La Biblioteca”)?
Who would have thought that Glover would emerge as such mover and shaker in the fashion industry on top of his other duties? In late 2010, the Gap hired Glover to star in its winter-fashion campaign, alongside stars like Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) and the founders of Foursquare. With his dark framed hipster glasses, checkered shirts, and stylish cardigans, he has introduced geek-chic into Hollywood’s vernacular. The NBC star is also a strongly vocal proponent of the clothing label Band of Outsiders, which specializes in one-of-a-kind Sperry Top Siders, striped polo shirts, and skinny ties. The label owes much of its current popularity to Glover, who tweets about the company and frequently wears Band of Outsiders outfits on the red carpet.
Childish Gambino is more than a comedian turned rapper. It isn’t a pet project for Glover, as he decrees “indie kids saying that I ruined all their favorite songs / hood n—s saying that I’m whiter than that Colgate / hating on my progress, I’m a long ways from ‘Bro-Rape.'” His mixtapes like Culdesac and EP establish a witty but focused workmanlike manner of rapping. His rhymes are clearly thought out in advance (unlike Lil’ Wayne, who claims his are spur of the moment), but this allows Gambino to develop a piercingly riotous focus. His single “Freaks and Geeks,” which does referenced the cancelled cult hit, also features blink and you’ll miss them lines like “Took the G out your waffle, all you got left is your ego.” Last month, he signed with Glassnote Records, and last week he dropped his hype single “Bonfire” on Hot 97. It’s a true work of genius that references wildly different ranges of the pop culture spectrum, shouting out Odd Future’s “missing” Earl Sweatshirt and namedropping GIR from Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim. His first album, Campfire, is set to make waves in November.