On October 14th 2013, thousands of people routinely opened their Instagram apps to find their photo feed inundated by sixteen posts of handwritten notes on Marriott hotel paper. These scribbles of introspective confessions and existential fears were not the kind of pictures people were used to seeing on their stream, especially from former stand-up comedian and star of the TV sitcom, Community, Donald Glover. These two titles barely encompass what Glover does for a living. His acting, writing and directing career is only one side of the coin. Flip it over and you have his other persona Childish Gambino, the musician, rapper and producer.
In the notes, Gambino addressed issues about his fear of disappointing his parents, his feelings of loneliness and helplessness and his insecurities of people not genuinely liking him. He dedicated a page to sharing the struggle of his record label’s refusal to release his album in December since he was not a “big artist”, nor was it a holiday album. He wrote in one of the notes, “I want people to listen to this album when everything’s closed, when everything slows down and quiets. So you can start over.”
Clearly his letters touched his fan base since they immediately started a campaign, #Donald4December. Sure enough, the power of the masses won over Glassnote Records and Childish Gambino’s sophomore album, ‘Because the Internet’ was released on December 6 because of the internet. However, his followers were unaware they were about to be exposed to the revelation of a new world.
Childish Gambino decided he was going to construct the most imaginative album rollout by creating an immersive alternate universe. It began in August 2013 with the unveiling of a mysterious short-film he wrote and directed called ‘Clapping for the Wrong Reasons’ on YouTube. Matters got increasingly interesting when he started showing up to every radio interview and talk show appearance in a simple white t-shirt, a tattered Shearling coat and floral shorts. He seemed to be lacking the energy and comedic presence he once radiated.
It became a recurring question in all his interviews of what had influenced the depressive notepad diaries. On the radio station, Power 105.1, he got riled up, dismissing claims that he was suicidal by responding, “Why is everyone pretending like everything is okay? We are more connected than we’ve ever been, but I feel more alone than I’ve ever been. Everybody stunts on Instagram. Nobody wants to be vulnerable. People thought I was crazy because I was honest.” He criticized all those who tried to deal with the situation by convincing him to take medication, rather than attempting to engage in connective conversation. On Shade 45’s ‘Sway in the Morning’, Gambino freestyled, “They try to give your boy pills like he being violent. They try to give your boy pills just to keep him silent. Keep telling people the truth you can be iconic.” This sort of reaction further proved his point of how rare honesty is in a world fixated on hiding behind idealized online personas.
Another returning theme in the myriad interviews he did leading up to the album’s release was that putting out a record is not enough anymore. Glover argued that the Internet has rendered the album “too easy” and meaningless on it’s own. According to Gambino, the hype behind albums nowadays is extremely short-lived. People download them for free, listen to them and forget about them a week later. However, he’s not opposed to online piracy, as he inferred in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi, “Music is like information. It should be free.” His main concern is holding on to the attention of his fans by providing them with more than just an album. The industry has found itself at a standstill by fixating on how to profit off music in the digital age while Childish Gambino has been experimenting to discover ways to push the culture forward. He conceptualized a living, breathing world to engulf his fans in. He understood how to utilize the Internet as a tool to realize this vision of a multimedia, multi-platform project. As he said on Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, “I don’t see my album as an album. It comes with a bunch of stuff. I want to make experiences. Music is advertisement now for a brand. You got to build a bigger world.”
In November 2013, Glover added another dimension to his world. He collaborated with independent label and record shop, Rough Trade and Tumblr IRL’s graphic designer, Brian Roettinger, to introduce a multimedia art exhibit, ‘The Boy’s Room’. The exhibit appeared to be a simple room with psychedelic projections on the bed and walls. “Digital music is arguably of little value, and often you’re not actually owning it – you’re renting it and the value is largely on its convenience,” shared Rough Trade co-owner, Stephen Godfroy. This installment was meant to serve as an antidote to music being solely a digital commodity. The display was an attempt to physicalize his psyche and Tumblr page through the combination of music culture, technology and supposedly obsolete record stores. However, at the time, the room had little significance to the passers-by since they were missing a key piece of the puzzle to put it all into context.
It made a lot more sense when Childish Gambino tweeted a link to a 72-page screenplay, becausetheinter.net. But, it was not just a screenplay. Embed throughout the script were short, muted video-clips and audio recordings of songs off his new album. He instructed to play the songs at specific moments to coordinate with the storyline. As fans across the world read the screenplay, they began to notice that certain scenes seemed oddly familiar. The description of the main character, The Boy, was uncanny to that of Donald Glover’s appearance over the past months. The story took place in a mansion, parallel to Chris Bosh’s California mansion that Childish Gambino had just rented with his friends and musical collaborators for a year to record the album. While living in what he referred to as ‘The Temple’, he cut all ties to social networking to focus on himself and the music. The art exhibit of ‘The Boy’s Room’ suddenly gained relevance when noticing that it was an embodiment of a scene in the script. The Boy’s existential crisis gave flashbacks of Gambino’s recent interviews, and the character’s conversation with a nurse is essentially a recount of when people forced pills on him for sharing his thoughts. After Childish Gambino mysteriously tweeted “Roscoe’s Wetsuit” months before, thousands of his twitter followers sent out the phrase as well, despite them being unaware of its meaning. The term appeared in the script, representing how easily things can go viral online when people latch on to any idea and fail to question it. After dropping this bomb on his fans that his behaviour had all been an act for months, he created an online chat forum on Reddit devoted to bringing a community together to decipher this ‘Because the Internet’ world he engaged them in.
“We were really into environments,” said Gambino when speaking with audio product corporation, Shure. The album is certainly successful at fabricating them with interludes of him playing piano while the noise of a party muffles in the background or song introductions of someone slamming a car door and turning on the radio. Childish Gambino and his co-producer, Ludwig Goransson, incorporated videos they watched on the Internet as song samples and also integrated a sample of a clip from a YouTube video they found funny on the track, Zealots of Stockholm. They used dial up modems as inspiration to produce an instrumental beat. A whole song on the album, ‘Worldstar’, discusses how the website by that name shares videos with violent content, breeding emotionally distant people who initially act by pulling out their phones when witnessing a fight. Snippets of videos from Worldstar are integrated in the track.
Gambino emphasized how he didn’t want this album to come off as an indictment against the Internet. He loves the Internet. He just feels we’re not being as responsible with the Internet as we should be or could be. He means this in the sense of how we display false representations of ourselves online rather than using it to connect with one another and how artists aren’t being creative enough with the Internet to engage their fans. He has taken it upon himself to repeatedly stress how essential it is for kids and young adults to start learning how to code. Glover understands that programming is the future and that developing this skill will allow you to create and innovate independently. He gave his fans the motivation to start learning by hiding secret pages and songs on his websites that can only be accessed by gaining knowledge of the deep web. He encourages his supporters to comprehend the potential they possess due to the limitless platform of the Internet. “Nobody’s stopping anyone anymore,” Glover said on The Arsenio Hall Show.
For about a decade now, the music industry has been grappling with the colossal task of finding a way for people to start paying for music again. It appears they’ve been focusing on the wrong issue. The Internet is there already. There’s no point in fighting it. The Internet opened up the world to immediate gratification, shifting the power into the hands of the consumer. It’s inevitable that technology is going to expedite the sharing of information, but it’s our responsibility to not impulsively react to it without thinking. Childish Gambino has taken it upon himself, as the artist, to slow down the music consumption process and find an alternate way to engage his audience. He understands that it’s up to him to find a way to cater to the short attention-span of people living in a digital world that is granting them endless options to get what they want.
Following a year of loneliness, Donald Glover invented an album rollout that would use the Internet to web people together for them to think critically and experience art as a collective. Last November, Gambino started announcing impromptu album listening parties via Twitter. He would show up at the location, usually a park, in his “The Boy” outfit with two amps to play the album off his phone. At one of these communal listening sessions in downtown Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, he explained to the crowd how, “It just didn’t feel personal to do it any other way. I feel like the old model of just sitting in a hotel room and talking to publications over and over feels really lame and old. It feels like a structure.” He would sit on a bench, surrounded by a peaceful mob of listeners bobbing their heads, as he read a small book on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. He stayed around to hang out and connect with his fans, answering questions for about an hour. Whether they were conversing with Donald Glover, Childish Gambino or The Boy, is unsure.