Before the soulful, falsetto roar of a future king, the world knew Childish Gambino for a nasal yelp honed on stand-up stages. In 2011, Donald Glover's rapping alter-ego seemed like a career detour somewhere between the ambition of Eddie Murphy's "Party All The Time" and the pop aspirations of Jamie Foxx's "Blame It."
But seven years and one Grammy later, Gambino has just released his first EP, titled EP, to major streaming services.
Ambitious, chaotic, and flawed, EP was an inflection point — the calm before the infamous 1.6 storm. Now, some of the same publications that critically slaughtered Gambino adore him. This begs the question: Did Childish Gambino the musician get better, or did he manage to reshape pop culture in his image?
It makes sense to now go back to Glover's first real artistic statement as a fledgling musician to see if it held any inkling of his Grammy-nominated future. Here’s a track-by-track breakdown of EP.
Gambino has flirted with the upper register of his singing voice since 2010's "Got This Money." However, it wasn't until "Be Alone" that Glover trotted out his falsetto with all the confidence of a Troy and Abed in the Morning! sketch. In a post-So Far Gone world, every rapper was incorporating melody into their utility belt. "Be Alone" is far from perfect, but the foundation the song set for "Redbone" and "Terrified" is uncanny.
"Freaks And Geeks"
"Gambino is a mastermind" was the tipping point. The opening line of "Freaks and Geeks" was a warning. In a little under four minutes, Gambino dragged the corpse of Lil Wayne's "A Milli" through a Tumblr graveyard and came out with his pop culture opus.
Punchlines like "E.E. cummin' on her face / Now that's poetry in motion" were cringeworthy then (and still are now) but emblematic of hip-hop's changing guard. The genre belonged to the denizens of the internet, and Gambino was their red-hoodie Pied Piper.
The most significant gap between Gambino's early work (I Am Just a Rapper 1 and 2, Culdesac) and EP was his growing sense of musicality. The majority of Gambino's projects up to and including 2012's Royalty never saw a rap punchline they didn't like. "My Shine" isn't any different, but it was the beginning of Glover letting the instrumentation do the heavy lifting.
"Lights Turned On"
In 2011, there was a plague. It ravaged women and children. Men succumbed to it in droves. No rapper was safe.
It was the EDM Apocalypse of the early 2010s. There were more samples — specifically of pitched-up vocals by female singers over obnoxious synths — than you'd find at Costco on a Sunday. Thankfully, the trend died an ugly and gruesome death. So if Gambino's "Lights Turned On" feels dated, it is less his fault and more a marker of the times.
"Not Going Back"
EP's outro was a mission statement. On the closing track, Gambino raps, "Whiskey sippin’, wanna drink the whole bottle / But these smart middle-class black kids need a role model." The sentiment, while clunky, was prescient. In the seven years since EP, the rap world has been taken over by the same middle-class black kids — Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott, Jaden Smith — Glover was writing for and to.
When he raps about his mom thinking he's the next Will Smith, it points to a future of Funkadelic falsetto reproductions and Twin Peaks meets Hustle & Flow concoctions that only Glover could've foreseen. The current Gambino all started with with the end of EP and the beginning of "Not Going Back."
Listen to the full EP below.