“Maybe the words I say is just another way to pray”

           - Curtis Mayfield
Words On Persistence

Words On Persistence

Here’s a scenario.

Say you’re on Twitter, and you see a tweet that says “support your local artists!”. Of course, you swipe past and think to yourself “yeah, if they were good I would.” But your local artists are people you went to high school with. It’s just not the same, you know? Why are they really trying to do this music thing?

If that feels familiar in any way, let’s talk about Childish Gambino. After hosting and performing on SNL and dropping the absolutely insane video for his new single "This Is America", it seems like he's on top of the world. But things weren't always that way. For a long time, Childish Gambino was seen as an embarrassing side gig for an otherwise solid writer and actor, aka Donald Glover. 

See, Donald Glover was a great screenwriter, nobody could deny 30 Rock while they were raking in all those Emmys. Troy Barnes, his character on Community was a fan favorite too, Glover’s acting chops were there for sure. But Sick Boi, the first Childish Gambino mixtape (that he claims, he completely disowned The Younger I Get, an earlier tape) also happened. This was different, because Sick Boi was trash.

On Sick Boi, Gambino sounds like Lil Wayne with a runny nose and less autotune. Self-produced, his production style matched nothing lighting up the mainstream in 2008. Of course, mainstream acceptance isn’t the benchmark for good....but the content wasn’t that great either. Bad punchlines littered his verses, the hooks were lackluster and although he would insist that he was a winner, he made it sound like he wasn’t taking himself seriously. He even called Sick Boi the “Childish Gambino Experiment”, on the record.

There’s no need for revisionist historians to try to go back and call Sick Boi a good rap project. The same can be said of the following Poindexter or I Am Just A Rapper 1 & 2. Each project sounds like an amateur rapper, but Gambino didn't stop. His first project that didn’t feel like a complete joke was 2010's Culdesac, his first made with longtime collaborator Ludwig Göransson.

Gambino and Göransson (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images North America)

Gambino and Göransson (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images North America)

The weird Urkel voice was gone by now and the production had made a marked improvement (like on the Adele-sampling “Do Ya Like”). The subject matter also got much more personal, with tracks like “Fuck It All”. Improvements aside, this still was far from the best rap of 2010, and it was still seen as a talented actor’s cringey side project.

Still thriving in his other endeavors, Glover recorded and released a comedy special in 2011. Weirdo was aired on Comedy Central and added another notch onto the multihyphenate's list of talents.  

Gambino persisted, with his debut extended play EP and debut album Camp were both released the following year, and both improvements. He’d finally forced his way onto critics’ radar, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Pitchfork famously gave him a 1.6 for Camp, a rating that equates to Bart Simpson and his “At Least You Tried” cake. Gambino’s personal brand was big enough that this wasn’t a career-ending indictment, but this was still far from a positive reception.

A few months later Gambino was back, this time with powerful cosigns. His 2012 mixtape Royalty was his first project with name grabbing features, with established rappers giving his work real credence. Bun B, Nipsey Hussle, ScHoolBoy Q, and Danny Brown all appeared, along with buzzing Chicago upstart Chance the Rapper. Danielle Haim, Beck, and Tina Fey were also featured.

The project was hard to ignore, even if you wanted to, and the Royalty buzz kept him relevant. His appearance on Chance's hit mixtape Acid Rap built a popular rap bromance that elevated both artists. For a while he was musically silent, then in October of the following year “3005” came out.

The song hit #64 on Billboard and garnered major radio play. In December, Because The Internet dropped with a screenplay and short film in tow, and Gambino finally got it right. Incredibly unconventional for as popular of an album as it was, for the first time being a Childish Gambino fan didn’t feel unreasonable. Despite mixed (but more positive) reviews he debuted in the top 10 and received Grammy nominations, and the album performed much better culturally than critically. He was a real rapper now.

The smash success of Atlanta and Awaken, My Love! aren’t a part of his come up story, they were just him flexing after making it to the main stage. Those two projects showcased all the potential people refused to see in the rapper who made Sick Boi. Thankfully he had time and space to release lackluster music due to his work in stand-up, on 30 Rock, and Community, with a fan base who would be receptive to his work due to his other talents.

Donald Glover, with  Atlanta  co-stars Brian Tyree Henry and Lakeith Stanfield. (FX Networks)

Donald Glover, with Atlanta co-stars Brian Tyree Henry and Lakeith Stanfield. (FX Networks)

So this is the catch. Your local artist isn’t Childish Gambino.

There’s no popular body of work before they started making music. I mean you saw them at graduation like three years ago, right? So, that time and space that Gambino got doesn't exist for them. Of course, that isn’t always a bad thing. Maybe they’re just a Playboi Carti knockoff. Or, the music simply isn’t that good. Quite clearly, not everyone is made for making music. So then the question becomes, how can you discern if someone is?

The answer is twofold, and they both revolve around persistence. Music today is way too oversaturated to give people brownie points for starting, because everybody is.

The first discerning factor is if the artist doesn’t quit. Everyone knows that guy who dropped a few tracks and didn’t get the reception they wanted, so they stopped. When someone brings it up they just laugh it off, it’s no big deal.

Persistent artists release music because they feel like they HAVE to say something, whether it’s about politics, culture, or even their personal life. In an age where major labels are signing anyone who goes viral, wide range acclaim and a strong message doesn’t matter, as long as the numbers are right. In many ways, this has always been the case, but it seems to be more blatant than ever as of late.

It's not hard to argue that the internet age has led to a new generation of clout chasers. It's understandably hard to lend support to unoriginality, especially if a local artist is clearly just trying to ride the coattails of a particular sound or aesthetic. However, when music is a form of release that someone can't hold back, regardless of streaming numbers or response, that's an indicator of an artist trying to make art without the focus being on commercial interest.

That's not to say that making the same bad mixtape or EP, no matter how much passion an artist puts into it, is worthy of support. An artist needs to be learning, trying new things while building on the stronger points of past releases. If Gambino kept making Sick Boi, FX would have never bought Atlanta. Projects like Culdesac are crucial, still a ways off from the peak, but an artist clearly coming into their own.

Persistence in creation, as well as artistic progression, are two signs that an artist is for real. Not everybody falls into these categories, with some natural successes and many passionate amateurs filling up the incredibly wide world of music. However when someone, even if you remember them from the fourth grade, shows both types of persistence, maybe they’re worth a second look.

Intangible Radio: Episode 5

Intangible Radio: Episode 5

Week 6

Week 6