Donald Glover has been a viral-video phenomenon, a New York improv-comedy staple, an award-winning writer for 30 Rock, and, most recently, an actor on NBC’s recently renewed Community. Funny guy. But he’s really just a rapper.
Performing under the moniker Childish Gambino—chosen after he ran his name through a Wu-Tang Clan name generator during his freshman year at NYU—the 26-year-old is arriving at a time when hip-hop and comedy are intersecting in strange ways. Just don’t call it a joke. “I guess that’s just my brain,” Glover says from his Los Angeles apartment while tweaking his recent Comedy Central stand-up special. “I never go into an album thinking, ‘This needs to be a little funnier.’ I only look at scripts or jokes that way. There’s no winking at the culture of hip-hop. I’m dead serious.”
The Atlanta-born Glover, though funny in his songs, isn’t making what has come to be known, somewhat derisively, as Joke Rap—the knowing but goofy appropriation of the genre’s style and attitude, sometimes without context, delivered as parody or novelty. That’s the terrain of Andy Samberg’s trio the Lonely Island, alongside Flight of the Conchords and—with his forthcoming, Dave Sitek–produced RAAAAAAAANDY mixtape—Aziz Ansari, who has proven himself a rap allegiant, detailing his bizarre personal encounters with Kanye West in his recent stand-up special, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening. The mixtape’s first leak, “AAAAAAAANGRY,” finds him literally hollering at Drake, Kid Cudi, DOOM, Clipse, and basically every other relevant rapper: “Beats by Dr. Dre Headphones—what about some Verses by Dr. Dre Verses?”
Glover makes a far more confessional, “girl-crazy” brand of rap on his fascinating, promising pair of mixtapes, I Am Just a Rapper and I Am Just A Rapper 2 (available for free download at childishgambino.com). “These raps are not my sketches/I’m a sick boy, nigga/When I cough, I hope you catch it,” he chirps on Rapper 2‘s “The Real.” Like nearly every track on the tapes, it’s performed over a popular indie-rock song—in this case, Sleigh Bells’ “Infinity Guitars.” Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, Animal Collective, and Vampire Weekend also get the Childish treatment, though his next album, Culdesac, will feature all original productions.
Glover, warm and enthusiastic over the phone, repeatedly cites Kanye as an inspiration—and it ain’t hard to tell. West’s halting cadences, obsession with high-end fashion (APC, Comme des Garçons, and Band of Outsiders—for whom Glover just modeled—all get Rapper shout-outs), and near-shrieking emotionalism abound. On “What the F*** Are You?” Glover raps over the Knife’s “Colouring of Pigeons,” unleashing a furious identity screed: “Yeah, I’m self-conscious, go ahead laugh it up/’Cause I dig deep and pull something out to back it up/They told my ass to blacken up/’What the fuck are you?/You don’t even say shit/Quit writing gay shit.’ ” His wit makes him a compelling rapper, but it’s the vulnerability that wins out: Glover describes his first Childish Gambino project, The Younger I Get, as “way too close to my heart” and “my emo album.” He says no one will ever hear it again.
Not every accused joke rapper is as emotionally splayed. Queens duo Das Racist were singed with the Joke Rap brand when their “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” became a flashpoint last June; since then, the group’s Himanshu Suri, while acknowledging the importance of their breakout, shudders at being called shtick.
“We’re not making anything that we felt would be consciously described as ‘parody’ or ‘novelty,’ ” says the 24-year-old. “We didn’t think we were making fun of anything except what we felt were antiquated modes of thinking about rap. Irony is something we embrace—we don’t think of it as a non-valid way of looking at the world. It’s an appropriate lens. Especially when intertwined with race.”
Das Racist’s other songs are funny, too, but more complex. They also feature more actual rapping than “Taco Bell.” The group’s often hilarious, sometimes dark new mixtape, Shut Up, Dude, is a deeply self-conscious batch of word-association jumbles, references to other artists’ lyrics, and half-hearted hooks. They don’t so much rap as approximate rap’s best and worst tics. The chorus of “You Oughta Know,” a remix of an obscure, Billy Joel–sampling Cam’Ron song, is essentially “Ooo lalala aaaah nananana.” It sounds like what people who don’t know the words to rap songs do when trying to rap along. On “Hugo Chavez,” the pair rap, “A million here, a million there/Tougher than Ethiopian warfare/Mohair coat’s from the goat’s back/Cocaine Blunts, we smoke that/Kodak moments/Eating doughnuts/Listening to coke rap/Listening to joke rap/Listening to Donuts/Listening to grown-ups/Listening to Camu/Listening to Cam, too/Watching Shampoo/Washing my hair with shampoo.” To recap, in those few bars are references to a Lil Wayne lyric, a rap blog, a rap microtrend, a rap micro-microtrend, an album by the late J. Dilla, the late rapper Camu Tao, Cam’Ron, and a Warren Beatty film. Oh, and eating doughnuts. Well-played, Das Racist.
Suri, along with his partner, Victor Vazquez, hopes Shut Up, Dude will untangle some preconceptions, though the emergence of “Taco Bell” is still telling. For rap, repetition was a popular drink, and it still is. Which explains how the Lonely Island’s farcical collaboration with T-Pain, “I’m on a Boat,” received a Grammy nomination earlier this year—in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category. On the red carpet before the February ceremony, T-Pain was perplexed: “It’s more amazing that a lot of my stuff don’t get nominated for Grammys, then a mockery of the art is nominated,” he noted. “It’s weird.”
Not too weird. What’s so wrong with being funny? Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys were making joke rap before it became a dirty phrase. Nineties films like Chris Rock and Nelson George’s CB4 and Rusty Cundieff’s Fear of a Black Hat worked in a similar vein: smart but over-the-top parody, deftly written from inside the culture. No one made better satire than De La Soul, one of the most celebrated rap acts ever. Rap is encouraged to be funny: The best stuff is often littered with, ahem, “punch lines,” and the biggest stars—from Slick Rick to Biggie Smalls to Lil Wayne—are championed for inspiring guffaws. And though Glover and Suri are both quick to distance themselves from the Lonely Island, there’s a kinship there: What made the group’s 2009 full-length Incredibad so interesting was not Samberg and Co.’s lyrics—sort of funny, I guess—but how slavishly accurate the production was. “I’m on a Boat” worked well as T-Pain homage, and “Dick in a Box” as Color Me Badd–style loverman r&b. But there was also the Black Sheep nod on “Punch You in the Jeans” and the West Coast pastiche “Santana DVX” (co-starring E-40). There’s even a remarkable thematic similarity between Das Racist’s “Fake Patois” and Incredibad‘s “Ras Trent.” As instrumentals, these songs poked knowingly, operating in ways beyond “Weird Al” Yankovic’s chintzy Casio-and-accordion reproductions of Coolio and T.I. songs.
Ten or 15 years ago, rap became both pervasive and ripe for lampooning—now, the jokes just work better as actual songs. The real comedy comes from outsiders and oddballs. South Africa’s zef clowns Die Antwoord. Hollywood club slut Mickey Avalon. Joaquin Phoenix. They’re the real jokes. For the polymath Glover, rap is just a natural progression. “Comedians are obsessed with rock stars, and rock stars are obsessed with comedians—it’s always been that way. Eddie Murphy. Blues Brothers. They made music, too. And rock stars want to be comedians. Jay-Z raps about Delirious all the time. They’re in love with each other. There’s nothing weird about it.”
Still, it’s not hard to see why there’s reason to be defensive. “I read all the time, ‘Oh, this nigga think he Lil Wayne.’ Nobody’s saying that about ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. Nobody listens to ‘White and Nerdy’ and thinks, ‘This guy thinks he’s Chamillionaire!’ It’s a joke. I don’t want to be taken as a joke.”