Childish Gambino Credit: Courtesy the Artist

Donald Glover has emerged as one of the most talented forces in entertainment this century, but by and large the music he’s created under the name Childish Gambino has landed awkwardly. As an actor, writer, director, and comedian, Glover has proved that he can express poignant, hard-to-define emotions through several works of art, including his role as earnest ex-quarterback Troy Barnes on the NBC collegiate comedy Community, and especially as the creator and de facto leader of the peerless FX rap dramedy Atlanta. But his music, mostly rap tracks, always seemed to be missing something; listening to it felt like communicating with a close friend over FaceTime when he or she was just around the corner. At their worst, his raps were sexist and derogatory—the kind of low-grade crap that gives fearmongers ammunition in the culture wars (take “Backpackers,” where he raps “I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect / Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech”). But Glover’s music began to play catchup with the rest of his work when he took a detour into soul and funk on 2016’s Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote), which survived some awkward moments of P-Funk LARPing thanks to the inescapable, enchanting single “Redbone.” Then in May he dropped the collage-pop single “This Is America,” and its video, which squeezes a history of racism and violence punctured by shards of joy into four unforgettable minutes. In just a few dance moves synced up with the fragmented sounds of popular rappers (Young Thug, Quavo, 21 Savage), Glover manages to capture both the positive complexities of American black life and the suffocating weight of systemic racism; he communicates more in those moments than a book-length PhD dissertation ever could. But “This Is America” still shows what makes Glover’s music frustrating; listened to by itself the song feels incomplete without the video. That’s not to mention the featherweight pop of July’s Summer Pack EP (mcDJ/RCA), which sounds like an enfeebled candidate for “the song of summer.” Glover’s music is a lot of things, but up until Summer Pack it never sounded anonymous.   v