Why Donald Glover Is 2018’s Hip-Hop Person Of The Year
As 2018 comes to a close, Donald Glover may not only be one of the most brilliant people in entertainment, he is among the most influential. In an era where quantity rules and quality rises, Glover is prolific in a way that rivals few. In three songs, two music videos, another incredible season of Atlanta, one revealing interview, and some captivating moments in between, the 35-year-old creative force is setting a new bar on how to take Hip-Hop culture to the highest of places, rarely without some provocative constructive commentary on itself and the world watching it closely.
At the top of this year, Donald Glover was still collecting interest from his earlier work. 2016’s “Awaken My Love!” yielded five Grammy nominations including “Album Of The Year,” “Record Of The Year,” “Best Traditional R&B Performance,” “Best R&B Song,” and “Best Urban Contemporary Album.” That LP, which featured Glover singing, marked a pivot for him, as his previous releases focused more on his also acclaimed rapping. Donald’s first platinum release was a nod to the darker side of Parliament-Funkadelic while finding contemporary and relevant terrain. Standout single “Redbone” gives credit to two 1976 compositions, Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s “I’d Rather Be With You” along with Jaco Pastorius’ “Portrait Of Tracy.” However, the song is not merely a cool callback, but a sleeves-rolled-up approach at modern Groove. The single nearly broke the Top 10 with lyrics that are sexual and cerebral at the same time. It sounded great in Get Out, and chased that feeling for the next year. The composition is as dynamic and frantic as the times that spawned it.
On January 28, “Redbone” took home the Grammy for “Best Traditional R&B Performance” for the single. While there, Glover performed a soulful rendition of one of the album’s standout tracks named “Terrified.” Towards the end of his display, he brought out JD McCray from Disney’s live-action The Lion King remake, due in 2019. Both actors will play “Simba,” with McCray taking the role of the younger version.
Just days before his win, Donald Glover cemented a centerpiece role at a major label. He inked a partnership between his mcDJ imprint and RCA Records. As a label positioning itself on the cutting-edge of new and authentic Urban Music (H.E.R., Bryson Tiller, Khalid, Buddy, etc.), Glover promised to be a decorated figurehead of the unconventional new sound permeating the mainstream.
Roughly a month after the Grammy’s, Donald premiered the second season of his hit FX series Atlanta. Days before the preview, Glover gave a rare and revealing interview to The New Yorker. While speaking about his success, he was not shy about how hard he had to fight and strategize to get his ideas in play. “The hardest part is surprising FX every time. They need that to feel that you’re an authentic Black person. I surprised them up front by telling them I wanted to make them money,” he said, at a time when the series was the most-watched comedy in the network’s history. A month later, Glover responded to reports that “his commitments” prevented him from properly taking on an FXX Deadpool series. He did not do so with a broad statement or a damning rant. He released script pages. The work balked at any speculation from the public or exec-gossip hearsay. Glover showed what he was up against, and why his creativity and execution was not to blame.
The interview explained that Glover is not a do-everything multi-talent as much as he is a student on a path of learning and mastery. Speaking about accepting a smaller than expected role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Glover explained why it was about opportunity more than ego. Meanwhile, “opportunity” in Glover’s case is not just a polite replacement word for money. “I learn so much. I learn how Marvel movies work, how to handle guest stars, how to make execs happy when they come on set. I gain some of your power. Only now I’m running out of places to learn, at least in America.” That process is part of a lineage that leads him to a leading Lion King part.
Season 2 of Atlanta raised stakes. Robbin’ Season displayed to the world that there is much more at play in a home invasion or mugging. Exploitation and life mirroring art were themes. Directed by longtime collaborator Hiro Murai, the “Teddy Perkins” episode (#6) is the longest in the show’s history. It captured its greatness and uniqueness too. Glover gave a captivating portrayal of a troubled fictional former child star “Teddy Perkins.” As “Darius” is taken hostage at gunpoint, the episode locks in on Theodore “Teddy” Perkins’ psychological pressures and traumas from early fame. It is an E! True Hollywood Story brought to screen cleverly, playing to the damaged child star archetype. Glover transformed entirely into character underneath makeup and prosthetics. Through his eyes and carefully crafted voice, “Teddy” becomes a simmering mass of repressed anger, pain, and violence. Something funny on paper becomes serious and raw.
Critics and peers felt what Glover’s series has done. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards and took home three. The work was so good that some fans felt that the “Most Outstanding Comedy Series” slighted the show from the win it deserved. The “Teddy Perkins” episode was responsible for two of the awards.
Between the Emmy nominations and September awards this year, Donald Glover may have made his boldest statement. The night he hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live, he published something that eclipsed that mainstream look. The “This is America” music video showed the country the trouble that it is in. With the first 40 seconds feeling like a saccharine celebration of partying and capitalism, the video gets really real, really fast. The musician and actor merges his talents with an artful video that highlights the issues all around, and the distractions that take precedence. Gun control, police brutality, racism, religion, and more are allusions behind a catchy song disguised as another evanescent wave. Like J. Cole’s KOD, “This Is America” takes no prisoners in its take on the times. The symbolism has been linked to Jim Crow, Michael Jackson, and “The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse.” With over 445,000,000 views to date, “This is America” has been cited as one of the best music videos in 2018.
In the midst of playing “Lando Calrissian” in Solo: A Star Wars Story, Glover stayed on task with music and great videos. He released the EP Summer Pack that included the songs “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer.” The songs were a step beyond his Rap days and his Funk display, veering into a hybrid of Power Pop and R&B, but on Glover’s subversive terms.
While pleasing to listen to, the visual “Feels Like Summer” video may be even more soothing. It further reveals one of the most provocative artists of our time. Directed by Glover, Ivan Dixon, and Greg Sharp (with character design by Justin Richburg), the video turned the page from the jarring effect of “This Is America” to a pleasant utopia. Glover’s illustrated form takes a walk home, only to encounter a who’s who plethora of rappers, celebrities, and a beloved First Lady. Aside from some pranks, all are in harmony, doing things like chasing ice cream trucks, braiding hair, and skating. He addresses the issues of the day, young artists trolling, Kid Cudi’s depression, and Kanye West’s political malaise.
At a time when animated videos to songs can feel like cheap excuses for budget constrictions and cramped schedules, Donald blended an homage to Saturday morning cartoons with commentary on the Rap world as he sees it. In a year when a current Rap star was murdered, another overdosed on drugs, and another went behind bars, this video and melody can feel like a yearning for innocence. Just underneath the surface of this feel-good energy, the visual reaches darkness as Donald’s lyrics reference global warming, water scarcity, overpopulation, and species extinction. Musically and visually, it is not preaching or beating one over the head with its depth, but it is there for the taking if you want to look a little closer.
As 2018 closes, Donald Glover reached a new plateau with provocative art on several stages. There is plenty to come on all fronts. In August, Glover was spotted on set with Rihanna in Cuba filming Guava Island, which is directed by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai. The details surrounding Guava Island will remain a mystery until its official release. Gambino is currently on tour, where he released two previously recorded tracks exclusively to his fans that have attended his show. He also has an “Easter egg” cameo in the new Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
As for 2019, the sky is far from the limit for Donald Glover. He is currently up for four nominations at the 2019 Grammy Awards including: “Record Of The Year,” “Song Of The Year,” “Best Rap/Sung Performance” and “Best Music Video” for “This is America.” As well as earning a nomination for “Best R&B Song” for “Feels Like Summer.” He is also slated to headline Coachella with Kanye West, and he stars alongside James Earl Jones and Beyonce as Simba in the 2019 Disney live action film The Lion King on July 19, 2019.
Three songs, one incredible season of television, a Star Wars role, and a video that dominated cultural and political discourse are just part of the profound impact Donald Glover had on Hip-Hop and America in 2018.