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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

Pazz & Jop Comments: It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Popular music, at its top-dollar best, is either music to drive to or music to grill to; at its bestest best, it’s both. By my reckoning, track by track, the Carters’ Everything Is Love record is for: grilling, driving, driving, grilling, driving, grilling, grilling, driving, grilling. “Music has my kids sound asleep” might not be a lyric that will appeal to many, but it did to me as the year hit its crescendo, the hills on fire on every corner of America’s 8 1/2 by 11, the sky turning peach. “Summer’s light like summer’s night/It’s like Christ’s masterpiece” indeed.
— Daniel Brockman

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https://youtu.be/syi60tUIP48

On Room 25, Noname delivered on a sophomore album with a lot more dizzying raps than her first. It’s almost like she heard the masses talkin’ shit about her skills and went wild on this record. Who else’s pussy is writing a thesis on colonialism?
— Tirhakah Love

Not enough can be said about the weight of this genre-welding meeting of titanic Texas forces: On “Gone Away,” Bun B writes what is, in all likelihood, his final letter to UGK bandmate Pimp C, but does it in a way that’s broad enough to be applied to any lost kin; Leon Bridges delivers a somber and vulnerable hook, and Gary Clark Jr. cleans up with a solo reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” They’re truly the Texas triumvirate, and it’s a wonder we aren’t talking about the magnitude of this collaboration more as a culture. What’s better, it all takes place over a beat cooked up by Big K.R.I.T., whose beats have, in the wake of Pimp C’s death, given Bun’s delivery an unmatched comfort and ease. Put this one right up there with UGK’s own “One Day” in the canon of Southern rap eulogies.
Sama’an Ashrawi

Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired ByNo mere album can live up to the cultural impact of this extremely ambitious comic book movie, but it’s a great companion piece nonetheless.
— Carol Cooper

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A rundown of personal and social horrors that’s less frantic but also far less calculated than the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” Lil Peep’s Life Is Beautiful is far more devastating. “Tryin’ to keep your cool at your grandfather’s funeral/Finding out eventually the feeling wasn’t mutual/You were not invited ’cause you’re nothing like the usual” — damn, that’s bleak. And it cuts much harder than the “My girlfriend left me so I’m depressed and I’m gonna take lots of drugs to cope” lyrics Lil Peep specialized in, as sincere as they clearly were.
— Steve Erickson

Travis Scott’s world domination is more than just a crowning achievement for an artist who’s long been a critical darling, but it’s a clear statement that the South, and especially Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, has got something to say.

Drenched in Houston’s legend’s sweat, Astroworld is a referendum on hip-hop as a genre and an art form. The album is slowed down, tripped out, and bombastic, as Scott liberally references Houston’s past as a hip-hop hotbed while pushing it past its Screwston reputation. Astroworld feels both futuristic and classic at the same time, and that’s something only Kendrick Lamar has been able to accomplish in the last half-decade.

But there will be no Nobel Prize for Astroworld. No Taylor Swift collabs, no Marvel soundtracks. It’s all just too druggy. Too street. Too Southern. Too real. 

And maybe that’s how it should be. But, one thing is for sure, Travis Scott’s moment is now, and he’s going to run with it straight to the Super Bowl halftime show, and he’s going to keep running with it till someone comes to take it from him.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon

By my count, Kids See Ghosts is the seventh time Kanye has made the best album of the year. But it’s no accident that this isn’t the 2018 record he put his name on, or that he needed a co-host to pull it off, or that it’s impossible to remember a single word he says throughout  —  which, thank God.
Nick Farruggia

Drake, “In My Feelings”: Only in 2018 Atlanta could I drive crosstown from berating a Bush speechwriter in a Roman Catholic sanctuary to Aubrey & the Three Migos at State Farm Arena preaching a center-right message of Maya Angelou vibes featuring Future, Young Jeezy, and Trey Songz. Did it for the culture. But you can imagine compassionate conservative Michael Gerson kicking himself for not writing “I wanna thank God for working way harder than Satan.” Elevate.

The next morning I returned to work, where a sickle cell anemia patient almost hemolyzed to death. 2018!
— Maureen Miller

With Cardi B’s “Bickenhead,” nasty hos from across the globe finally get the anthem they so righteously deserve.
— Jessica Hopper

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The day Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” dropped was unforgettable. I listened as it rolled out on Funk Flex (the first major terrestrial radio event in a while!), and he kept stopping at every new bar, overwhelmed, and then he would replay it from the beginning. I remember wanting him to get through the whole song, but this approach made sense — it’s a lot to take in. An unbelievable achievement in diss tracks, and Pusha’s best work this year.
Evan Minsker

Childish Gambino, “This Is America”: Donald Glover’s incantatory recitation would work without visuals, but Hiro Murai’s video represents America in 2018 as acutely as the newsreel footage in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Utterly unnerving.
— Kathy Fennessy

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I like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” but Earl Sweatshirt’s “December 24” gets the Gil-Scott Heron “Winter in America” mood more right than anything else I came across this year. (Which, my annual disclaimer, amounts to 1 percent of 1 percent of whatever hip-hop was out there in 2018.) It must be my shortest number one ever at 1:46 — I wish it went on for another 7 or 8 minutes. At the risk of sounding white-guy stupid, where does the opening genuine-dialect quote come from? I’ve Googled it, looked up the album credits, nothing. The significance of December 24 escapes me, too, but it feels right: aspirations, a plan, something that came up just short. Quote I came across in a Goon Sax interview: “Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through.”
— Phil Dellio

The Carters, “Apeshit”In perhaps pop culture’s Blackest year — Black Panther, Kendrick’s Pulitzer, and Beyoncé’s own history-making Coachella set, for starters — Black America’s reigning monarchs deliver a worthy soundtrack.
— Trevor Anderson

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop Uncategorized

Pazz & Jop: This Is Black Genius?

It’s hard to hate on what the mainstreamiest skinfolk were diggin’ into in 2018. On its face, it seems they’ve been getting into each other. If scrolling through this year’s Pazz & Jop rankings tells us anything, it’s that the collapsing of technological, aesthetic, and networking barriers between the music industry and Hollywood resulted in a celebration of seamless branding. The Black Brunches at the tippy-top are paying off. In a time where conscious consumption and demands for Black entertainment hit threat-level orange, everybody Black seemed to be rooting for everybody Black. And for better or worse, it’s working. Donald Glover — whose virtuosity played transistor through which this year’s charged Black music (as Childish Gambino) and Black visuals (with Atlanta) often ionized — tops this year’s singles list off the strength of the interweaving gloss and shock on “This Is America.” Following recent big-screen appearances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Janelle Monáe coded Dirty Computer, effectively kicking through the ceiling and high-stepping up out the closet and clocking in with the number two album and number two single; Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, didn’t even release a proper album this year (his last two both topped P&J) yet makes the singles list after banking off the Cali conneck with Ryan Coogler and helping soundtrack the year’s most spectacularized Black product, Black Panther.

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Each of these aforementioned artists has been labeled a Black Genius™ in one way or another. Glover as the “solitary male genius” in the mold of Kanye West, hailed for his mind and malleability. Monáe as the revved-up engine of Black femme grace and queer womanhood attempting to redefine what genius looks and sounds like. And Lamar as the Pulitzer Prize–winner, celebrated for his brilliant wordplay, multitudinous performance, and ferocious rhyme-scheming. Each has the ear and consideration of Black and white audiences alike, crafting a vision of Blackness and Black “transgression” that is legible and hugely profitable to a largely white industry. In today’s culture, as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quips, “You ain’t crackin’ right now if you ain’t got no black something.” These days, the separation between the wheat and the chaff comes down to the genius label. 

The 2010s have presented the transmissive and transgressive modes of Black musical genius on multiple points along a spectrum: in Lamar’s chaotic free-flow rap-witnessing and defiant live performances; in Beyoncé’s unabashed appeal to down-home Blackness and poignantly subversive feminism at this year’s Coachella; in Kanye West’s self-sustaining engine of aesthetic and musical output (through which he became this decade’s Black genius du jour); in Glover’s banally provocative “This Is America” and Monáe’s Afrofuturist posturing on Dirty Computer. If the multiplicity of approaches suggests a progression in accepting the various and overlapping realities of Black life, the critical response (read: who we as an audience deem “genius”) still represents a simplistic, gendered, and classed view of virtuosity and artistic autonomy. Who is considered a Black genius is wrapped within the presentation of Blackness as attractive, abrasive, “unapologetic,” or abject.

Genius, especially of the artistic flavor, infers both signifying and self-fashioning. Ingenuity implies innovation — a glimpse into the future of form using the materials available in the present. Before the Black voice was beloved, Louis Armstrong’s horn could at once skew soteriological and shambolic. Satchmo reimagined the standard, and set new ones for Duke Ellington and the rest of those heads at the Cotton Club. Miles Davis blew till he was blue in the face, and sinewed Black America to its mainland African cousins in what Amiri Baraka terms America’s musical “rhythm bed.” These cultural icons elicited huge praise from white jazz critics who, in the late Fifties, mirrored the ethos of New Criticism in literature. White audiences buzzed off those jazz cats, and as the form was subsumed, new Black faces covered in sheeny sweat took over: The Stevies, JBs, Princes, and MJs soundtracked the new virtuosity, which had to include the sweaty, somatic, hip- and head-rolling vibe of the time. Prince’s and Stevie’s multi-instrumentalist, know-it-all, do-it-all mode provided the frame that that middle-class, Midwest producer-kid Kanye West filled for the majority of his career.

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It’s no coincidence that every genius who sees glory in their own time is a straight man. Consider that the progenitor and generator of the rhythm and blues form, Big Mama Thornton, didn’t receive her flowers till she was decades under the grave. Aretha got her roses a generation too late, the genius of her voice and autodidactic instrumentalism only truly celebrated after she passed. Alice Coltrane, it can be argued, was the one pushing John to do all that weird shit that ended up becoming his most lasting contribution.

In 2018, the contours of major success were formed around presenting an understanding of the sonics and images that “start a conversation” without having to necessarily add anything new or refreshing to that conversation. The most blatant examples of this are two singles that dominated streaming services off the strength of punchy videos that spoke to a growing awareness of “feminist aesthetic” and self-involved philanthropy: Drake’s “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan,” the latter a looping mess of quick quippy rhymes, with a video that’s an easily read publicity stunt if watched more than once. But no one this year won off stunting quite like Donald Glover.

Glover’s upbringing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, subsequent matriculation to NYU, early white-’n’-nerdy humor and music shtick, as well as his role on NBC’s Communitysituated him as a Black-whisperer amongst white friends. It wasn’t until 2016’s Parliament-inspired Awaken, My Love! and the “unapologetically Black” FX show Atlanta that Glover began to be viewed by Black audiences as someone potentially approaching the visionary stratosphere of Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Janelle. But unlike those artists, Glover-as-Gambino hadn’t made a concerted appeal to Black audiences specifically. His work seemed concerned with boosting his status as the multihyphenate artist-of-the-day. Glover, as Jordan Peele quipped to the New Yorker, is attempting to make “elevated Black shit,” though there is hardly anything innovative about “This Is America.” Craig Jenkins, writing for Vulture, opined that compared to Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!, “This Is America” is fascinating yet facile: “Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this.”

The video’s overt symbolism has been the subject of a torrent of deep reads and “stories behind stories speaking to the “necessity” of the work in today’s racial climate. For whom the video is necessary is subjective. The video’s most widely discussed images — Glover summoning a pistol to murder a hooded Black man and an assault rifle to mow down a Black church choir — is deemed genius by some and conveniently cynical by others.

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Because the song itself is a disarray of punchy lyrics and chaotic sound, it’s fair to ask how “This Is America” would fare if the video wasn’t so lustrously traumatic. Shot beautifully by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video captures the sweaty viscerality of “unapologetic” Blackness in Glover’s warping facial expressions and dance steps, as well as the sudden synchronicity of Black death. Glover’s playing of both sides is undermined, however, by a lack of consideration and mourning for those lost. Maybe that’s the point. But it’s worth asking whether that point was worth the psychic trauma. I talked to costume designer, stylist, and Columbia, South Carolina, native Clark DeBarry about the video — which she could only watch once because of its triggering nature — who said that she felt Glover didn’t really sit with the terror South Carolinians lived through after the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “It didn’t feel like Black people were being put in the forefront to receive whatever message he was trying to put out,” said DeBarry. “The public was very quick to label it iconic.… I was very confused about him being labeled a genius.”  

The video dips an entire leg into a kind of Black exploitation that profits from the “performative wokeness” that’s swallowed public discourse this year. Glover has been noticeably quiet about the discussions surrounding the video, electing to allow his audience to interpret it however they see fit. He’s fully in his right as an artist to do so, but as someone trying to show an investment in Black people’s experiences, killing a bunch of unnamed Blacks without warning and without mourning seems more hurtful than poignant.

The genius label suggests an interplay between artist, critic, and audience that Black artists navigate with various levels of consciousness. During her promo run ahead of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe spoke about her sexual evolution — coming out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, no less. As such, Dirty Computer has been hailed as Monáe’s first true masterpiece. It’s a curious distinction, as her earlier work not only features the multilayered sonics and storytelling of previous “geniuses” but the ideological depth that should’ve catapulted her into the stratosphere. Maybe all she was waiting for was the blessing of the reigning Black genius. Before his death in 2016, Prince lent his guitar to Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” tied for the number two single on P&J this year. Like Kendrick’s posthumous détente with Tupac on To Pimp a Butterfly, Monáe is speaking across time to other geniuses — namely Stevie Wonder on “Stevie’s Dream”— and placing herself along that continuum generally works to her benefit. She largely lets her work do the talking, but who she’s talking to matters just as much as the content itself.

Monáe revealing the mystery of her sexuality by publicly coming out is at once an act of self-fulfillment and clever marketing on her part. Following her roles on Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe’s star has never shone brighter. Answering the questions regarding her queerness through Dirty Computers pre-release videos — and the companion sci-fi film of the same name — only generated more buzz among fans and newcomers alike. Still, trying to represent and celebrate the fullness of her identity is a political tightrope. The video for her breezy, gumdrop song “Pynk” came under scrutiny online for what seemed like a narrow construction of womanhood: Monáe and her backup dancers sporting what’s been facetiously termed “pussy pants” garnered a healthy backlash. After all, the critics carped, not all women have vaginas, or necessarily pink ones, at that. Reading a work solely for what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t see, without contextualizing how it fits within a larger industry is a rather deficient way of critiquing art, however. “Pynk” is refreshing in an art scene full of men we consider geniuses who hardly ever celebrate women and the parts that make up women — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — in any meaningful way.

Glover’s and Monáe’s work — the particular criticisms that follow, and their respective responses — highlight how artistic demands dovetail with our feedback. Glover wants to be taken seriously, so he positions himself and his crew beyond reproach, beyond his audience’s touch. As such, the mystique and ethic he’s cultivated is praised and tabbed “genius.” Monáe tried that with her earlier work and failed to receive the same respect — the ArchAndroid suite still conjures emotional responses from her listeners; there is hardly any working artist who portrays falling in love in the midst of the apocalypse so remarkably. Of course, genius, mystique, and autonomy are warped by a patriarchal order that undervalues Black women, queer and non-binary folks, and poor people’s work at every turn. Monáe shows a propensity to listen to her audience. She repeatedly expressed concern with what her “early fans and very religious and very Southern family” would think about her sexuality during an interview with the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham last month. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she said.

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But both the music industry and the social conditions surrounding it are changing, and that means we’re defining genius differently than we have in the past. Genius, even if it’s socially constructed, is a nonlinear evolution — Kanye West is a prime example of the progression and regression that can happen over time. It’s close, but the Louis Vuitton Don is perhaps the most successful artist in the history of Pazz & Jop. Much like that of Glover, Monáe, and Lamar, Kanye’s art was so obviously concerned with Blackness — one circumscribed by its male-dominated, middle-class demographic, but Blackness nonetheless. Some things haven’t changed since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Ye’s still a hardcore soul samplephile, albeit with a few postpunk interpolations tossed into the mix as well. But the furious circus surrounding his Trumpism and ahistorical imaginings of African oppression has turned everyone off. Whether it’s from the prescription drug dosage or the reality-TV teachings of his in-laws, West’s work is completely vapid these days: As loud as he is on Twitter and IRL, his incoherent music has remarkably little to say. And he isn’t alone. Drake’s Scorpion, which featured a couple of cute singles drowned out by a thick layer of throwaway tracks, came and went. And Kanye played roulette with the most prominent figures in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, electing to release weekly seven-song tapes in lieu of focusing on an album or a posse cut that could’ve showcased its members’ talents together more seamlessly. The two most influential male rappers of the decade seemed to finally overextend themselves. But this year, more promising names took the stage and exclaimed a self-assuredness that is part and parcel to ingenuity.

Artists like Tierra Whack, whose 29th-ranked, 15-minute Whack World adds another wrinkle to the “album” model. Most of her songs feature a one-minute running time, and were melded together for a long-form music video that introduced her as a wunderkind who’s not only securely in her bag, but also interested in the ethic of cohesion that “contemporary genius” implies. The singularity of her ideas and her self-created world portend a curious and promising future. Her sound is weird, full of guts and approachable, while her visuals — for which she has been nominated for a Grammy — suggest a mind that’s fun, frazzled, and colorful. It feels like Whack can sing or spit on anything from a trap beat to a meandering acoustic guitar with no trouble at all. And unlike previous virtuosic artists, Philly’s resident surrealist doesn’t lay the shit on thick. Where others opted for boasting singularity, Whack displayed a brilliance that is less a barrage than an unraveling tapestry that seems satisfied with just playing around in our heads for a little while.

Expanding the parameters of Black genius means emphasizing the contributions of artists leading long-lasting cultural shifts. That means, necessarily — sometimes retroactively — honoring the dual-headed dance-punk femmes Santigold and Kelis, who cracked the sonic door in Europe, allowing future artists like Azealia Banks and Monáe to walk on through. It requires that we parse out the classed notions of genius as well, highlighting artists like Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who laid the groundwork for drill’s mainstream upheaval; like Memphis, Tennessee’s 3 Six Mafia, who popularized the triplet rhyme scheme dominating radio play and streaming playlists today; or like Odd Future, a bunch of excitable kids who captured the pathos of drug-addled, disillusioned adolescence through shock music, and then followed it up a decade later with thoughtful renderings of queerness both in music and fashion. Like Noname, whose Room 25 compounds the strong cohesion she put on display on her previous work, 2016’s Telefone. In the past, understanding these artists through social contexts of “violent” or “nontraditional” upbringings worked against the communities that bred them. Their uniqueness proved harmful.

The jury is still out on whether unglossy ingenuity will elicit praise from this generation of listeners. History proves that any determination of Black genius requires an interrogation of its function — who the term celebrates and the protections it provides beloved but potentially harmful figures. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is helpful in this analysis. As are the volume of writers, critics, and thinkers who are problematizing celebrity culture, working to resist the dangerous ego-boosting, critical consensus that strengthens exceptionalism and reinforces existing inequalities within and without Black communities. So far, the “Black excellence” of the day is largely Middle Class Problems™, and while that speaks to a certain kind of progress, it also suggests a severing. Nowhere, not on OWN, not on BET, not on HBO, not on FX, not on the radio nor the playlist — nowhere are the stories of Black poor and working-class folks receiving glory. Works like Moonlight and DAMN are exceptions that prove the rule. And that is not simply a massive oversight but a detriment to those living those lives. Which is, actually, the majority of Black people.

Donald, Janelle, and Kendrick are informed by Black artistic communities of the past — the Nikki Giovannis, Maya Angelous, Amiri Barakas, James Baldwins, and W.E.B. Du Boises of the world — but, in their own ways and to their own degrees, they have partitioned themselves from the audiences those cultural giants aimed to encourage. Indeed, they’re winning. Our trust in their contemporary-funk voices has yet to really wane, and rightfully so. They haven’t swerved onto the Ye-route. They’ll be all over our television screens during this Sunday’s Grammy Awards; their nominations will be held as a sign of progress in the white mainstream, as such nominations have for the last fifty years. But in the past, following the commandments to secure thine bag has cut off the top performing artists from the people they are said to speak for. We felt that in droves in 2018. Now comes the reckoning.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

“Atlanta” Season Two Mines the Perils of Being Famous While Black

The premiere of the second season of Atlanta opens like a buddy comedy but quickly turns into a shoot-’em-up action sequence: Two friends playing video games decide on the fly to rob a fast-food restaurant. When they do, we see it all in tense slow motion, this small-scale heist invested with all the high-stakes drama of a battle scene in a war movie.

That kind of tonal shift happens a lot on this show, particularly its stellar second season — subtitled Robbin’ Season — which ends tonight. Atlanta creator Donald Glover explores a similarly abrupt turn from casual cheer to grim violence in the explosive music video for his new single, as rapper Childish Gambino, titled “This Is America.” In Robbin’ Season, these swerves into menace continue when rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) tries to pick up weed, only to have his longtime dealer and friend sheepishly pull a gun on him (“Ay, my fault”); or when three young fans encounter Al alone on the street and gush before attacking him and stealing his watch; or when a white man buying tickets at an upscale movie theater wordlessly pulls back his jacket to reveal a holstered gun on his hip, prompting Al’s cousin Earn (Glover) and the mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beetz), to book it. In the world of Atlanta, the threat of violence looms behind the veneer of every mundane interaction. As a white viewer (and a Canadian no less!), for me the show is a bracing reminder that the rhythms of everyday life are not the same for all of us.

Atlanta’s first season outlined Earn’s quest to make a buck managing his cousin’s nascent career. The second turns its focus more squarely on Alfred himself. Ambitious but ambivalent over his newfound fame, Alfred is caught between his community and the wider (and whiter) world of celebrity — a rapper who resists the imperative to posture although that seems to be all anyone wants from him.

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Alfred’s season-two arc is a cutting portrait of stardom in the social media age. Being a local celebrity only seems to put him in danger — of losing touch with himself, but also literal, physical danger; his fame is a target on his back. The clichéd trappings of a successful rap career don’t yield many pleasures for Al. Even the promise of pussy falters: When Earn arranges for Al to sleep at a fan’s apartment during a college performance, to save money, the girl turns out to be less alluring than strangely threatening. Lying on her bed in her pink-walled room, she tells Al about a sexy dream she had where they were exotic animals holding each other naked: “And then I ate you. And there was blood everywhere.”

These incidents speak to the hazards of fame, but also its illusory nature. In the world of celebrity, nothing is as it seems. Al’s spacy sidekick, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), warns that anyone with a certain number of Instagram followers inevitably has an “unrealistic view” of life. In “Champagne Papi,” Van and her girls snag themselves invites to a party thrown by Drake; a friend of Van’s is stringing along the rapper’s tour barber, one of many satellites orbiting Drake’s star. But the party doesn’t quite resemble the one being documented all night on Instagram. The women have to wear hospital booties over their high heels to protect the mansion’s marble floors; a nice guy who offers to help Van charge her phone turns out to be a creep; and, finally, Van discovers that Drake’s not actually there, and that all those girls on Insta have been sharing photos of themselves standing beside a cardboard cutout — a fairly ingenious hustle run by two enterprising women charging partygoers twenty bucks a pop.

As the season progresses, Alfred learns that fame can be less liberating than oppressive. The higher he climbs, the more he realizes that his success depends on access to and the approval of white people. While fellow up-and-comer Clark County (RJ Walker) — whose white manager has already booked him a Yoo-hoo commercial — gamely snaps pics with the pale millennial running a hipster music streaming service called Fresh, Alfred takes one look at a twentysomething white kid eating a banana at his cubicle and wordlessly leaves the room, handing the kid his microphone on the way out.

**

As Atlanta Robbin’ Season was entering the home stretch, Kanye West started to tweet. He was a “free thinker,” he claimed, and he wouldn’t be shamed for supporting Donald Trump. “The mob can’t make me not love him,” he tweeted in late April, shortly before posting a picture of himself in a red MAGA hat. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.” Later, West visited the offices of TMZ and claimed that slavery was a “choice.”

On Monday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, wrote the response I’d been waiting to read, about fame and how it fucks with people — especially black people, who carry the expectations of a community not just on their albums and movies and music videos and TV shows but on their own backs, too. Of his own brush with fame, after the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, Coates writes, “I felt myself to be the same as I had always been, but everything around me was warping. My sense of myself as part of a community of black writers disintegrated before me.”

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The implication in all this — and what Atlanta so nimbly teases out — is that there’s something inextricably whitening about the pursuit of mainstream fame in America, no matter how absolutely central the contributions of African Americans have always been in shaping mainstream American culture. (The show’s tradition of stamping its opening credits onto everyday objects, half-hidden, speaks to the open secret of black cultural dominance: This season, “Atlanta” shows up stitched into a placemat on a coffee table, etched into the barrel of a gun, and, my personal favorite, printed on the side of a bus driving by in the background, out of focus and barely perceptible. Central, crucial, yet marginal.) Atlanta Robbin’ Season made this point explicit in its headline-grabbing sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Glover plays the title character — a wealthy mansion-dweller in a silk robe whose face is a bizarre mask of whiteface, and who claims his brother is a famous black jazz pianist. Darius, who drives out to pick up a piano Teddy listed online, suspects the man is black but has bleached his skin to the point of grotesquerie. Like so many episodes of Atlanta, this veers into violence as Teddy, rifle in hand, cuffs Darius to a chair and threatens to “sacrifice” him. Darius escapes unharmed, but before he does he takes the time to demonstrate empathy for his captor. Darius tells Teddy that Teddy’s father should have apologized for his abusiveness, and that Teddy still deserves love.

The existence of Atlanta itself is a powerful rebuke to its own hard-headed cynicism. The creative freedom that FX has given Glover means the show doesn’t launder its blackness the way so many other series centered on black life do — most TV is made by committee, and that committee is usually predominantly white. The show boldly speaks to American culture’s impulse to extract all that is cool or profitable from blackness while discarding actual black people, a compulsion that Jordan Peele so brilliantly made literal in Get Out. Alfred understands this, so he resists being sucked into the maw of mainstream pop culture — he doesn’t want to play this game, finds no solace in the fact that corporate, white America will pay him to rap over ads for chocolate-flavored sugar water. The freedom he craves is the kind that leads him “back to Home,” as Coates puts it, rather than “the white freedom of Calabasas.”

Maybe such freedom is impossible for someone like Alfred. That’s the conclusion he seems to have come to when he toys with the idea of jettisoning his cousin, late in the season, and hiring a bearded white guy in his place. Alfred’s arc suggests the near impossibility of being famous and real at the same time, especially if you’re black. Maybe Glover’s own success shows that there is a path for a black artist in a white world. But in the world of Atlanta, the best you can hope for is to be famous for being perceived as real, because that’s all fame is — a trick of the mind, an optical illusion. A cardboard cutout Drake.

The season finale of Atlanta airs tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.

 

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Community Returns — and Feels Like Community Again

Community returns for season 5 on January 2 with a two-episode block that plants its feet on the study room table and regrounds the characters after a fourth season of viewer discontent and lost purpose.

It’s impossible to discuss the season opener without talking about the show’s creator. The sweet, funny first episode, titled “Repilot,” follows graduate Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), returning to Greendale Community College after his law career stalls. As in the original series pilot, Winger harbors bad intentions and ulterior motives. The episode also marks the extremely improbable and welcome return of series creator Dan Harmon, rehired by Sony Pictures Television with its own apparent set of Winger-ish motives: On the cusp of the 100 episodes that make series syndication lucrative, Sony execs probably don’t much care who’s in charge.

That was apparent during season 4, when Sony replaced Harmon with David Guarascio and Moses Port, former show runners of Just Shoot Me, a series with a notably broad, mass-market sensibility antithetical to Community‘s exuberantly unconventional spirit. The result was a flat, false imitation of Harmon’s previous seasons that leaned heavily on forced meta-comedy and had the overdetermined jokiness of Robin Williams impersonating a faith healer. (We did, however, learn that Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, who plays Community‘s Dean Pelton, does a really good Joel McHale impression.)

Harmon claims he was never told why he was fired prior to the fourth season. The trades often cite an inability to wrangle the notoriously prickly Chevy Chase. But Chase was fired from the show after Harmon’s departure, and the pair have remained friends — so who’s the bad Chevy wrangler, exactly? Draw your own conclusions, but Harmon has the distinction of having worked professionally with Chase for a longer extended period than any other person, including Beverly D’Angelo or Chase’s former SNL costars.

“Repilot” quickly reestablishes the show’s original structure: Unhappy with post-college life, the show’s principal characters, with the exception of Pierce, return to Greendale for postgraduate studies. Harmon has long professed his allegiance to Joseph Campbell’s monomythic narrative structure and developed an own eight-point story circle with which he structures his writing. In accordance with this story structure, Winger gets what he came for, but pays a high price: He’s now the school’s pre-law professor.

In the second episode, “Introduction to Teaching,” Winger begins his new academic career in appropriately half-assed and half-hearted Greendale fashion. Troy and Abed enroll in a Nicolas Cage Studies course. Annie antagonizes Winger for his lack of effort — it’s business as usual, but without Chevy Chase. Pierce’s absence is filled by a new character: criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks, who becomes a mentor as Winger acclimates to his new role.

It’s remarkable how large a footprint Chase’s character Pierce plants on these first three episodes, given that he’s no longer a series regular. The third episode, “Cooperative Polygraphy,” pivots on Pierce, with his open displays of racism, gender bias, white-guy entitlement, old-guy befuddlement, and bad-guy conniving — all despite the fact that Chase never appears on camera. That’s a real testament to Harmon’s abiding loyalty to his characters and the sharpness of the writing staff.

This might be some tiny consolation to fans of Donald Glover, who’s leaving the show to focus on his recording career as Childish Gambino and launching a new series he’s created called Atlanta on FX. “Cooperative Polygraphy” plants the seeds for Troy’s imminent departure — Glover only signed to appear in five episodes. Harmon has sheepishly admitted that Glover is his favorite actor of the show’s ensemble; in the idiom of the mythic story cycle he loves, maybe losing Glover is the high price Harmon has to pay for the triumph of getting his show back.

On his podcast, Harmontown, Harmon has said that he never visits the set during production because he’s too busy in the writers’ room and the editing bay. He approaches television as a writer first, and he’s said that the show’s characters are all projected aspects of his own personality. Harmon’s own virtues as an artist aside, it’s hardly surprising that he’s better at writing for these people than anyone else.

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JUST A KID

With his NBC comedy Community on hiatus, Donald Glover is spending the summer tending to his alt-rap career as Childish Gambino: In recent weeks, he has played Coachella, Sasquatch!, and Bonnaroo, and tonight, he hits Prospect Park for the second of two outdoor concerts (the first is Monday night in Central Park) designed to benefit SummerStage and the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival. Glover also just released a new song, “Silk Pillow,” with a guest verse by Beck in long-lost “Loser” mode; it’s a big improvement over his debut album, last year’s often-whiny Camp. With Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q.

Tue., June 26, 7 p.m., 2012

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Donald Glover Is More Talented Than You

Red sweatshirt hood pulled tightly over his head, brown leather jacket wrapped tightly around his torso, fresh whiskey sour sweating in his hand, Donald Glover peels his way through the packed crowd in the upstairs lounge at the Lower East Side bar Pianos to the area where a lifesize panda, peering from behind a giraffe, pig, and monkey in a display window above the stairs, is staring at him.

The previous night, the 27-year-old recorded his first hour-long comedy special, Weirdo, at two sold-out shows at the 500-capacity Union Square Theatre. He flew his family in to watch. His younger brother, Stephen, Tweeted after the performance from the bar: “Watching two women fight over my brother, LOL.” Glover didn’t go home with either of them—he went home instead with a woman he calls “the Holy Grail,” the one he tried and failed to get the entire time he lived in New York, before bolting to Hollywood two years ago.

“Why now?” Glover asks no one in particular, turning his back on the panda—its eerie eyes staring like some sort of harbinger of ill times—and gazing into the mass of bodies writhing in the center of the room, speaking as if to the Holy Grail herself. “What changed that you’re making out with me now?”

What changed is that Donald Glover is blowing up.

Donald Glover, the black hipster from Stone Mountain, Georgia, who landed a gig writing for 30 Rock while still an R.A. at NYU. Donald Glover, the former Jehovah’s Witness who penned some of Tracy Morgan’s most classic lines as idiot savant Tracy Jordan, only to leave his Emmy-winning writing job for California and quickly snag the role of Troy Barnes, the clueless jock, on the NBC show Community. Donald Glover, the asthmatic nerd who remixed Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise album into a dreamy, chill hip-hop record and whose latest rap EP, released under the moniker Childish Gambino, has been downloaded 150,000 times. Donald Glover, the guy whose viral videos as the part of Derrick Comedy team have been watched 200 million times and counting.

This week, Glover embarks on the first large-scale mash-up of all of his abilities in the “I Am Donald” tour—a live show for the ADD generation that combines hip-hop, comedy, and viral sketch video. He will tour 23 cities in 33 days, including stops at the Bowery Ballroom on May 10 and Williamsburg Music Hall on May 14—both shows sold out in three hours.

Ten years ago, “I Am Donald” could never have happened. Handlers and brand managers may have allowed a guy who played a lovable character on a popular mainstream network TV show to perform hardcore, dirty-mouth stand-up, and even dirtier emo-rap—but they would have insisted he do it all on a separate stage. But the transparency and immediacy of the Web makes it possible for Glover to avoid cutting his talent into tiny pieces for his different audiences. In a sense, he has spun the TV-personality paradigm on its head—his persona is what people see on the Web, and the TV show is merely an extension.

“Because of Twitter, people don’t go to my shows expecting Troy to rap,” says Glover, a reference to problems other performers have encountered, like Andy Kaufman facing crowds that only wanted him to be his Latka character from Taxi.

When Glover randomly Tweeted that he wanted to audition for the role of Spider-Man in the Marc Webb reboot of the franchise, the Twitterverse began a campaign to make it so. (See Donald Glover’s 10 Favorite Nerd Things.) Even if it was just PC diplomacy, both creator Stan Lee and Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis said they approved. Alas, he didn’t audition, and the role went to Andrew Garfield. It was probably for the best—because even though he claims he needs just three hours of sleep a night, Glover is running at breakneck speed, criss-crossing the country fueled by ambition and whiskey and girls, heading toward a moving target that is flashing either “Next Big Thing” or “Next Tragic Hero”—all depending on how the next year plays out.

It’s nearly midnight at Pianos. When he made his way through the bar downstairs, he received countless hugs from male fans. Most knew him from the television series, others knew him from the viral videos. A select few know his raps. A lot of people know him from Twitter, which he checks constantly on his iPhone throughout the night.

Glover checks his Twitter again. There are way too many bros under the tight ceiling of Pianos’ second floor. He asks Twitter—”In NYC, where should I go right now to drink?”

After getting numerous responses of “My bed,” from lady followers, he migrates down the street to Darkroom, where a follower promises “saucy bitches.”

Glover leads his family caravan down Ludlow into the blackness that is the Darkroom. His brother comments on how damn cold it is. Glover enters the room and immediately realizes—this is where all the women on the Lower East Side have been hiding. It’s a long way from Stone Mountain.

A suburb of Atlanta, Stone Mountain sits in the shadow of a large relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved in the side of the mountain of the same name. It is the place where the Ku Klux Klan was rebooted in 1915—and Martin Luther King references it in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

There was a television in the Glover household, but the kids, being raised Jehovah’s Witness, were not allowed to watch it. So Glover would take his Talkboy, record the audio of episodes of The Simpsons, wait until bedtime, and listen to them as he lay in his bed. (He would later write a spec script for The Simpsons in which Homer is arrested for stealing a single song off the Internet and taken to court by the RIAA, where he must face his victims, Hall & Oates.)

His parents, mother Beverly and postal-worker father Donald Sr.—contrary to what you might read on the Internet, Glover is not the son of Lethal Weapon actor Danny Glover—were also foster parents, which meant a steady stream of kids entered Glover’s home.

Glover says he was happy growing up, but always had a fear that something would go wrong—that something bad would happen around the next corner. “I was the type of kid—I felt like I was always being blamed for things that weren’t my fault. So I always wanted things to go smoothly. And growing up in the South, people didn’t like me because I was black. And it took on this thing: I’m gonna be me so much, and be sooo likeable, that I will change their minds. And I know now that that’s impossible. But I had to try.”

The kids who would come through his front door had often been through a lot already in their lives. When his parents brought home a child who had been molested, they had to explain to Glover that the boy needed a lot more attention. As a kid, Glover remembers asking himself, “What about me?”

So he would do anything to get his parents’ attention—puppet shows, plays, skateboarding.

For a while, he was the only black kid in his school. A black kid who liked the Muppets and Korn. A good student but a disruption in class, he migrated to the DeKalb School of the Arts, where he starred in plays like 42nd Street and Pippen, and then used his performing as a way to escape Georgia to New York for school.

“NYU is like a Jurassic 5 concert—there are supposed to be black people there, but there aren’t,” Glover says in his stand-up. Studying dramatic writing in the hopes of being a playwright, he began performing in sketch comedy troop Hammerkatz, where he met current writing partners DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes. The three split off to start Derrick Comedy with director Dan Eckman.

The sketches of Derrick are teeming with frat-boy, racial, and homoerotic humor. But underneath the dick and fart jokes is a sincerity that makes them work.

In even the smallest roles in the sketches, Glover’s star power is evident. But it’s the ones in which he takes the lead that you’re likely to wet yourself, such as the student-film-as-revenge epic “Girls Are Not to Be Trusted” and the most popular Derrick sketch, “Bro Rape: A Newsline Investigative Report,” a Dateline send-up involving Natty Ice–drinking, Jack Johnson–listening male predators.

And then there’s “Jerry,” in which Glover plays a high school student who tries to fart but accidentally shits his pants in class, then spends the rest of the sketch trying to pass it off a million different ways while bawling his eyes out. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but there is a believability and earnestness in Glover’s performance that makes you care for him. At that point, we are all that kid. And it’s a microcosm of Glover’s range—wild and heartfelt . . . with poop.

Glover landed in New York a virgin who had never tasted alcohol. His first drink took place in a dorm room at NYU’s Brittany Hall as a sophomore. He sat in the corner of a room full of people, his hoodie pulled over his head, debating the whole night whether to take a swig or not. When he finally did, he thought for sure he might die—the fears that nagged him while growing up ruling over a lot of what he did.

In his junior year, he lost his virginity—to another R.A. in his dorm. Never having been in any kind of intimate relationship before, he was unsure of what to do when the deed was done. Was he going to have to marry this girl? But she told him, “No, it was just fun. It doesn’t mean anything.” “Doesn’t mean anything?” Glover thought to himself. “Oh, OK.”

It was then that the Childish Gambino was born.

He had been mixing beats since freshman year with a ripped version of Fruity Loops, but now he began rapping over them with rhymes about girls and love. The name “Childish Gambino” popped up on a Wu-Tang Clan name-generator site, so he kept it and put the first tracks on tape.

He can go from a suck-a-dick verse (“When rappers start rappin’ over indie shit/Just remember I was first to hit this shit”) to a child just trying to fit in (“I coulda been a tragedy/That’s why these fake niggas who call me ‘pussy’ are ‘mad’ at me/’Cause they ain’t have the smarts or the heart/Ain’t you read the fuckin’ book, Things Fall Apart?”) to a wailing, hopeless, and hurting romantic (“I don’t wanna be alone/’Cause you know/Somewhere inside/I cannot find/The feeling I got from you”).

It’s a bit schizophrenic—but much like how Glover doesn’t separate his TV persona from his Web persona, he doesn’t care to compartmentalize. For this, he has his detractors. Satirical cultural critic Hipster Runoff teased him by wondering if the “blipster” is too eager to “make it as a buzz band” (in a review of a Voice review). The AV Club picked apart his album Culdesac as “a collection of good ideas that still need to be finessed into a strong statement,” attacking the wild range of emotions and personality from song to song. But that’s exactly the point. “Fuck Rap Cool,” the hashtag Glover often adds to his Tweets, is the one tattoo to be etched on him at this stage in his career.

In his raps, he makes frequent mention of his manhood. His propensity for thick women, particularly of Asian descent, is well-documented, and on one track he gives a shout-out to e.e. cummings—you can fill in the rest. But in between, he’s rapping about alienation, trying to fit in, getting girls to like him. Nerdy emo with a fro. Name-dropping Greedo and Inspector Gadget one minute, then laying something like, “Whiskey-sippin’/Wanna drink the whole bottle/But these smart middle-class black kids need a role model” the next.

“So many black kids Tweeted me about that line,” says Glover. “This is the first time in history we are able to talk about alienation and nerd things. Black kids do like white stuff. Arcade Fire were at the top of iTunes—it ain’t all white people listening to them.” He represents a new archetype of entertainer—a black nerd who can like white stuff. Not a black nerd in the over-the-top Steve Urkel or Dwayne Wayne sense, but a regular black guy who likes the same stuff white people like—but just happens to be more talented than you.

The black middle-class kid is a real thing. Earlier that night, before heading to Pianos, around the table of Boka Bon Chon with his two biological siblings, brother Stephen and sister Brianne, and high school friend Lauren, the conversation turns to race—who can say the N-word and who can’t. “He was voiced by a black dude,” he wonders out loud. “So is it OK for Darth Vader to say the N-word?” He quickly Tweets the question out to the world.

“During the whole Spider-Man thing, the only thing that ever hurt my feelings was this one comment. The guy said, ‘Look, I love you. I think you’re great. But let’s be honest: There are no black kids like Peter Parker,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “There are!”

And Glover will let us all in on a little secret: His first taste of rap wasn’t NWA. Or Run-D.M.C. Or even Eminem. No, his first taste of rap was guys like Fred Durst.

“They say there’s no place in hip-hop if you’re in the suburbs,” he says. “Kanye is a suburban kid. The struggle is finding your place.”

While in his senior year at NYU, Glover got an e-mail from David Miner with the message “I heard you write.” Miner had gotten his name from Tina Fey, who got it from Amy Poehler, who got it from his teacher at Upright Citizens Brigade.

They asked him for some writing samples. He sent the spec script he wrote for The Simpsons, along with one for Everybody Hates Chris, along with some sketches he had written.

Miner and 30 Rock co-creator Fey liked them. Not yet having graduated from NYU, he was now a writer on 30 Rock.

While Glover is often cited as a driving force behind a lot of Tracy Morgan’s best lines, his first joke to make it on the show was a punchline for Kenneth, the white hayseed NBC page—whom he says he actually most identifies with, if anything because of the fact that both (fictional white clueless guy and real black nerdy guy) hail from the same town: Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Eager to perform as well as write, Glover started doing stand-up. In the beginning, he took advice from Tracy Morgan: “Talk about penises—dudes loves that.” And later, advice from Chris Rock: “What the hell was that!? It looked like you went onstage and said ‘dick’ for 45 minutes.”

Meanwhile, he continued to mix beats and rap and, with his Derrick partners, produced and starred in the Encyclopedia Brown send-up indie film Mystery Team. But he wanted more. In 2008, he auditioned to play Obama as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but didn’t get the part. At the end of the third season of 30 Rock, he told Fey he wanted out. She gave him her blessing, and he left the most stable and secure thing he had, packed up the Derrick team in a two-car caravan, and headed to L.A., moving to Beverly Hills Adjacent, in an apartment building that also housed a brothel and a dentist’s office.

Then he got a call from Community. The character of Troy was actually written for a white guy, but he made it his own. Troy was also originally supposed to be paired up on the show with Chevy Chase’s character, Pierce, but it was clear early on that Glover’s Troy would enjoy a heated bromance with Danny Pudi’s film-school geek, Abed.

“It was pretty immediate,” says Pudi of the connection as he watches Glover’s band set up for a show on the cracked concrete outdoor patio of Austin’s Red 7 bar. “Both characters do things at 150 percent,” from bonding over Kickpuncher to building a dorm-wide blanket fort. Pudi has come down to Austin to party and hang with his friend and watch him perform. The line to get into the club on 7th Street stretches down the block, a diverse mix of b-boys and hipsters and normal-looking folk excited to see the guy from Community.

Glover appears from backstage wearing a vintage-looking red Coca-Cola T-shirt, tight jeans, and green-and-white Adidas. (See our review of the show, “Live: Donald Glover Gets Emo as Childish Gambino During SXSW.”) He is going solo tonight—his writing partner Pierson is back in L.A.—but I ask him if Pierson ever sealed the deal with a cute chick he was talking up before the Woodies a few nights ago.

“Which chick?” he asks, confused.

“The cute blond chick he was rapping to,” I answer.

“Oh, that one,” Glover says loudly with a smile. “No, I hooked up with that chick.”

“But DC was killing it!” I say incuriously.

“I know DC was killing it!” he retorts, and then says sincerely and unapologetically: “But I have money.”

He’s not saying it to be a dick—that was just the dynamic. “We started talking about money, and she was like, ‘So you think money is evil?’ and I’m like, ‘Money isn’t evil.’ But I could see dollar signs in her eyes.”

“So does she keep texting you?” I ask.

“Nah,” says he with a bigger smile. “I asked for her number first. I always ask for their number first. They see you put it into the phone and they’re like, ‘OK, he’s doing it,’ but . . .” his big smile turns into a sheepish grin. “Yeah, I’m a little girl-crazy.” (“He’s a silent assassin that way,” Pudi remarks later about his sitcom partner’s prowess.)

Glover, talking in a tone between a hush and a whisper as he tries to save his voice, goes back to his MacBook on the side of the stage to work on arrangements for the show.

He has told his entourage that now is the time to strike. When most performers usually wrap a TV show, they take a holiday. But he is charging ahead. The week of SXSW, he wedged a Chicago performance on Friday in between the Wednesday’s mtvU Woodie Awards, Thursday’s unexpected cameo at the Voice/Wu-Tang show at the Austin Music Hall, and Saturday’s show at Red 7. Then he’s going to do another gig in Texas, one in a church in Atlanta, up to New York for the Comedy Central taping, then Virginia, back to Texas, up to Arkansas. Nonstop. Why the rush?

“Funny you should ask, because we were just talking about that,” says Glover’s manager, Greg Walter, as we eye Glover talking to the band on the stage. “For the past three months, I have not been calling him saying, ‘Take this job.’ I am usually calling him saying, ‘Don’t take this job—you need rest.’ I get worried because he doesn’t sleep enough. I tell him to slow down, and he says, ‘You know what, I’m 26, 27—I can do it now.’ ”

Pudi, who looks decidedly healthy and rested in a military cap and fresh face, walks up to the side of the stage. Glover sees him and flashes a smile.

“Are you alive?” Pudi yells, leaning his body across the stage.

Glover, still resting his voice, holds up his pointer and thumb, pinched with little space in between.

Just barely.

The previous week had been one of the biggest in Glover’s career.

On Tuesday, March 8, he released the new Childish Gambino EP. Over the next four days, he was on the set of Community as they tried to finish shooting the second season before the weekend. He wove press interviews about Childish Gambino in between takes, and after each day’s wrap went back to his studio to remix some more songs and put them on the Web. At night, he was preparing for the Comedy Central special as well as working on slides for the “I Am Donald” tour. He spent eight hours on Saturday, March 12, covered in orange paint for the last day of shooting for Community. (They are revisiting a paintball theme.) 5-Hour Energy. Whiskey. Remixing. Girls. Bits and beats flowing through his head that needed to be captured on his iPhone. Writing a new song for the Woodies. Sunday was a Community goodbye get-together followed by performing at his regular Sunday-night comedy show, Shitty Jobs.

Three hours of sleep over the previous 48, Glover finally found his bed at 5 a.m. on Monday morning for some semblance of a proper rest.

He woke up three hours later, stumbled into the bathroom of his new Silver Lake home, and started throwing up.

He didn’t drink any whiskey the night before. It wasn’t food poisoning, either. It was the pace. His work—from the clueless jock Troy on Community to the indie rapper Childish Gambino to his black-nerd stand-up—constantly needing to be fed, had just left his flesh in its wake.

“My body was just done,” says Glover, safe in Austin. “My left arm was numb. I had to stop and sit down.”

Everyone—from his manager to his mother to his Gambino co-producer—wants him to slow down. He even raps about them telling him to slow down. But he’s not having it.

“You don’t get to where all my heroes were without giving up a part of who you are,” he says. “Right now, I refuse to even have a dog. No girlfriend. I don’t want anything tying me down. I want to be everywhere. I don’t see a limit for me. I want to do everything. I never thought I was this type of person: Have a good time, not a long time. As a kid, I was always afraid of dying.” But now, he’s driving full-speed. Pushing himself. He crashes. He gets back up. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Onstage at Red 7, you can see some ill effects of the pace at which Glover is living. His voice cracks in certain places, which he acknowledges, giving the crowd a look of promise that it will get better. He refuses to use Auto-Tune—the product of his performing-arts background—and it just adds to the sincerity of his delivery. On the last song, his best song, “Not Going Back,” he encapsulates all he wants to say.

Couldn’t see me as Spider-Man, but now I’m spittin’ venom
Now you payin’ attention, pick your fuckin’ face up
When I wanna be a superhero, I just wake up
Renaissance man with a Hollywood buzz
I refuse to go back to not likin’ who I was

He is currently writing two movies. He just signed on for a part in The Hand Job, and will have a cameo in the James Bobin/Jason Segel Muppets movie coming out this fall. These are all just Lego blocks of the nerd fortress Glover wants to construct.

“If one day, I can be a neo–Michael Jackson, I want that. I don’t know if it is possible for someone to be that big anymore. But I want that.”

And it’s not as if he is looking for Elephant Man bones or backyard amusement parks. Money—even if it can land him cute girls he might have already gotten anyway—is not what’s changed him. And it’s not what he’s after.

He’s after power.

“Power is what allows you to do whatever you want,” he says, getting energized again. “If Will Smith wanted to play Hitler, they’d make that movie. That’s power. I want to do a Nazi movie. I want Jay-Z and Eminem to rap on the same track with me. I’m in it for the power.”

It’s 3:45 at Darkroom. His brother and sister went home hours ago. But as the bar begins to shut down, Glover heads off into the night with a tiny Filipino girl on his arm. When he reaches the corner of 8th and Broadway, he peers across the street and sees something moving behind a window inside the Bank of America ATM lobby.

He squints to get a better look, and spots a two-backed monster crawling over itself. The girl propped up on the deposit-slip counter, her stiletto heels in the air, her partner thrusting. Glover immediately posts photos of the public sex from his iPhone, giving a play-by-play to the world.

He chronicles the entire tryst, makes a judgment call on its conclusion, and shoots one last photo of the two lovers hailing a cab.

“The most passionate thing I’ve ever seen!” he Tweets.

He puts the phone away and walks his new friend back to her place, where he drops her off with a kiss. The sun starting to rise, he heads south to the Bowery. He’s got another gig in Virginia in just a few hours. He might be able to snag a couple hours of sleep.

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Take Donald Glover, Aziz Ansari, and Das Racist’s Joke Rap Seriously

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.”