The best artists know how to adapt to the times while remaining true to their morals and keeping fans on their toes, and Childish Gambino is part of that elite crop. Starting off his multi-faceted career in comedy (he worked as a writer for 30 Rock and starred as Troy Barnes in Community), he quickly but seamlessly transformed from Donald Glover The Actor to Childish Gambino The Rapper with the 2011 release of his debut EP (aptly titled EP). He wholeheartedly embraced his nerdy side in a rap climate that was run by the streets. Pretty soon though, he unleashed more skills, showing that he could sing just as smoothly as his bars.
There are many sides to Gambino, each revealing themselves in a thrilling manner equal to unlocking the next level to your favorite video game. He’s presented heavy-hitting social and racial commentary, reveled in romance, channeled his inner ‘70s funk master, and became the king of the summer season. And he’s done this all while creating an entertainment empire, from his hit FX series Atlanta to most recently securing a multi-year deal with Amazon Studios.
In celebration of Gambino’s debut EP turning 10 on March 8th, we present a ranking of our favorite songs.
20. “Algorhythm” (3.15.20, 2020)
Half of Childish Gambino’s music will make you want to get up and dance. That is the case for “Algorhythm,” but he’s going to work your brain while doing so. This highlight from his recent 3.15.20 album is a lesson in funk, recalling 2016’s “Awaken, My Love!” But peel back the robotic vocals and an incredible sample of Zhané’s 1993 “Hey Mr. D.J.” hit, and the message of technology’s corrosive effects is startling.
19. “Freaks And Geeks” (EP, 2011)
For many of us, “Freaks And Geeks” was our introduction to Childish Gambino. He already released a few mixtapes prior to his debut EP, but his persona was still closely attached to his work on 30 Rock and Community. “Freaks And Geeks” was a smooth transition from the silver screen to the recording studio, as Gambino used the outlandish writing skills gathered from said series (“E.E. cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion”) and blasted his lyrics to the nerdiest corner of space.
18. “Summertime Magic” (Summer Pack, 2018)
As you’ll witness further down on this list, Gambino does “summer” very well. “Summertime Magic” lives up to its title, drifting off to a hidden island of bliss, valentines, and bright-eyed adoration. Have fun trying to get that “Do love me, do love me, do” earworm out of your head. It’s impossible.
17. “The Worst Guys” (Because The Internet, 2013)
By the time 2013 came around, Childish Gambino was gaining more cred while Chance the Rapper became a critics’ favorite with his second mixtape Acid Rap (where Gambino also appears). But despite all of this, the two were still adorably corny. So “The Worst Guys” is an entertaining attempt to be, well, the worst. Chance only appears on the chorus (what the heck does she need?) while Gambino throws in wild metaphors with back-to-back Sister, Sister references. But his Kanye West influence is still not concealed: the “The girls that you brought man, where are they from?” enunciation is ripped straight from Yeezy himself.
16. “Bonfire” (Camp, 2011)
As soon as the sirens begin, you know Gambino is about to go off. And that he does: “Bonfire,” the lead single from Camp, finds the rapper channeling his inner Lil Wayne as he unleashes his head spinning version of “A Milli.” There’s only a single chorus that cuts through Gambino’s flow, which is so aggressive that you could envision his face going red in the booth. And among the signature outrageous lyrics, Gambino gets cocky while targeting his competition: “’Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some?’ I don’t know, all I know is I’m the best one.”
15. “Pink Toes” (Because The Internet, 2013)
One listen to “Pink Toes” and it’s clear that (like many of us) Childish Gambino was reveling in a post-Channel Orange world. Similar to Frank Ocean, Gambino trades in the in-your-face bars for R&B escapism. Here, his charming croons shine as he paints a surrealist picture of a drug dealer and his loyal girlfriend. Towards the end, Jhene Aiko appears to amp up the fantasy. It’s a match made in heaven (or hell, if the police sirens capping the song are any indication).
14. “Terrified” (“Awaken, My Love!”, 2016)
Aside from the clunky fast food metaphor, “Terrified” is the smoothest track on “Awaken, My Love!” The taunting fear increases with each pluck of that sexy-as-hell bassline, igniting immediate shivers. And for a surprise, actor/singer JD McCrary (who voices young Simba in 2019’s The Lion King live adaptation next to Gambino’s older Simba) closes “Terrified,” making for a perfect meta moment. As if you needed any more conviving of the song’s brilliance, one watch of Gamino’s live performance at the 2018 Grammys will steer you in the right direction.
13. “Feels Like Summer” (Summer Pack, 2018)
Upon first listen, “Feels Like Summer” will spark memories of chasing the ice-cream truck to buy your favorite popsicle, running through sprinklers at the park, and family barbeques. The song’s melody has that warm, nostalgic element to it. But what grounds it is the lyrics, which allude to government control and the warning signs of climate change (“Running out of water, it’s about to go down”). It’s quite the depressing take as you realize summer may no longer be so joyful if we don’t work to change our planet.
12. “This Is America” (2018)
Racism is embedded in this country’s historical fabric, so it wasn’t as if Childish Gambino was reinventing the wheel here. But what makes “This Is America” so unforgettable is putting his own Gambino spin by funneling images that simultaneously mock and teach white racists of their own doing, which are propelled by an iconic video that brings Black people’s mortality to light. “This Is America” swept the 2019 Grammy Awards, taking home four trophies including the coveted Record Of The Year while making history as the first rap song to do so. Its accolades and virality were somewhat promising signs that this generation was finally waking up and smelling reality.
11. “Crawl” (Because The Internet, 2013)
If “Pink Toes” is post-Channel Orange, then “Crawl” is surely post-Watch The Throne. Gambino goes berserk on “Crawl” — the Because The Internet opener that borrows from Kanye West and Jay-Z’s penchant for grandiose beats. Gambino and co-producer Christian Rich creates an environment that’s not of this world, which is equal parts adrenaline-inducing and frightening due to Mystikal’s scatty adlibs, the increasing levels of a vital signs monitor, and a rousing choir. The outcome could’ve been messy, but Gambino hits the perfect balance that is an absolute headspin.
10. “Heartbeat” (Camp, 2011)
It seems like Gambino had 808s & Heartbreak on the brain for this Camp favorite. But make no mistake here, he’s not completely biting off a despondent Kanye West. Rather, Gambino is tapping into his inner romantic as he gets caught in a frustrating love triangle — a side of him that fans hadn’t seen before. From the chorus’ R&B croons to the pumping EDM production, “Heartbeat” encapsulated the heightened emotion of the early ‘10s music era.
9. “The Palisades” (Kauai, 2014)
Love’s complicated tug-of-war is the running theme on Kauai, and “The Palisades” finds Gambino longing for the simple pleasures in life: long walks on the beach, dancing with his girl, and smoking weed. But as he says on the succinct hook: “Love don’t really happen.” It’s all set to an oh-so-groovy, plucky guitar melody that takes a page out of The Neptunes’ book of earworm tricks (right down to mimicking Pharrell’s signature four-count start). Top it off with some Michael Jackson-inspired falsettos and you have a song that would make the Motown gods proud.
8. “Sweatpants” (Because The Internet, 2013)
Sometimes Gambino’s comedic wordplay can steer too far into try-hard territory. But on this Because The Internet cut, the rapper strikes a happy medium. “Sweatpants” has a lot of stand-out qualities going for it: the buzzy trap beat, the way Gambino confidently rides the beat in a way that’s more cool kid than geek, and fully embracing his suburban upbringing with his “The Boy” alter-ego. When he spits “Don’t be mad cause I’m doing me better than you doing you” on the chorus, you have no choice but to believe him.
7. “Candler Road” (STN MTN, 2014)
Childish Gambino opens STN MTN (his ode to his hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia) with: “I had a dream I ran Atlanta.” And on mixtape highlight “Candler Road,” he fully embodies that vision. Most naysayers would question the rapper’s ability to ride a trap beat, but here he completely dominates. The production is lifted right from the streets of Decatur (where the titular road is found), and Gambino matches its grittiness with a platter of impressive bars, ad-lib singing just for the hell of it, and too many aggressive flows to count. By the time the beat switches on the song’s latter half, you’ll be grinning at Gambino cheekily giving us insight into the vibes we could expect on his hit series Atlanta.
6. “Stand Tall” (“Awaken, My Love!”, 2016)
Being the closer to “Awaken, My Love!”, “Stand Tall” often gets caught in the praise of the album’s more prominent singles. But this isn’t one to be overlooked. It is six minutes of experimental bliss, with Gambino reflecting on his fatherly responsibilities. Here, he transfers the advice his old man once gave him in hopes to pass onto not only his own sons but the listeners who are in search of life’s answers. “Keep all your dreams, keep standing tall / If you are strong, you cannot fall / There is a voice inside us all / So smile when you can, when you can.” The motivating words float through vocoders, a harmonious choir, ‘70s-inspired wah-wah guitar flicks, and floating pipes that ultimately create Gambino’s version of wonderland.
5. “Sober” (Kauai, 2014)
One thing that Childish Gambino does well is juxtaposition, which is brilliantly executed on “Sober.” The melody itself is a sweet electro-R&B ditty reminiscent of a sunny afternoon stroll in the park, yet the lyrical content reveals the opposite. “Girl, what’s your problem? / ‘Cause I know it’s hard sometimes, baby just give it some time.” The opening lines give way to Gambino struggling to cope with a love lost; there’s no hope in mending his broken relationship. But I think the idea of never being sober is more than just reaching for the nearest bottle or substance of choice to drown your sorrows in. Here, love is the drug. And now that’s over, the search for an emotional high that has been lost begins. Towards the end of the song, the beat unexpectedly shifts, forcing all those emotions to come crashing down just as strong as the Hawaiian shores.
4. “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)” (Kauai, 2014)
As soon as the birds begin chirping on “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good),” you’re immediately transported to an island filled with lush greenery, calmly crashing waves and love in the air. Well, that’s what I predict Kauai to be like anyway. But if you haven’t visited the Hawaiian island (like myself), Gambino provides that ticket to escapism on this track. The artist showcased his singing abilities prior to Kauai, but on the EP he truly goes there. He sounds sublime on “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good),” wrapping your ears with tender love before Jaden Smith adds a dose of serenity with a spoken-word outro.
3. “Redbone” (“Awaken, My Love!”, 2016)
The tracklist placement of the Grammy-winning “Redbone” is almost too ironic, as if the mischievous Gambino we were first introduced to is in on the joke. Undoubtedly the artist’s strongest single to date, it is stuffed right in the middle of the album. But there’s no accidental skips here: as soon as those heart-thumping drums drop, you’re immediately sucked in. Cringe title aside (the referential “redbone,” or a light-skinned Black woman, is a historically touchy subject in the community), the song is a groove. Heavily borrowing from the melodic genius of Funkadelic, George Clinton’s ‘70s psychedelic funk band, “Redbone” is a masterful blend of paranoia creeping up behind your shoulders (which was heightened by its use in Get Out that gave a whole ‘nother meaning to “stay woke”) and a romantic boogie that’s laid on peanut-butter thick thanks to that unshakable bassline.
2. “3005” (Because The Internet, 2013)
On the surface, “3005” may appear as a cutesy love song. But strip away the punchy electronic production and the lush hook (in which Gambino sounds his absolute dreamiest) that is an overpouring of commitment and promise of fidelity, you’ll find loneliness at its core. “Everybody’s like, ‘It’s a love song.’ It’s kind of an existential thing. I’m just really scared of being alone. When I was little, there was a big dog down the street,” Gambino explained about the song’s meaning, which he wrote following a morning dream. “I was really scared of it. But when I was with my sister, when I knew I had to protect her, I wasn’t afraid of the dog as much because somebody was there. I had a purpose. I kind of lost that, I feel.” What’s more relatable than feeling alone? The shadow of existential dread is omnipresent in “3005,” jerking the song back to reality. It cuts through the bright melodies with lyrics like “I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending” and signature wordplay like “Girl why is you lying, girl why you Mufasa?” In the words of Meek Mill, there’s levels to this sh*t.
1. “Me And Your Mama” (“Awaken, My Love!”, 2016)
Looking back at the Childish Gambino who created “Freaks And Geeks” or even the Donald Glover who starred on Community, I’m guessing that none of us could’ve ever predicted that same person would’ve created “Awaken, My Love!” “Me And Your Mama,” the album’s intense opener/opus, stomps on all that disbelief and picks up our jaws off the floor. It begins completely unassuming, twinkling with mystical synths and a choir harmonizing about the joys of marijuana. But once the two-minute mark hits, we’re shaken awake from the high and staring in the face of our worst nightmares. Gambino, in his career-best vocal performance, emerges from underneath a taunting monster to profess his tortured love. Have you ever heard someone begging to be let into their partner’s heart that passionately? If there’s one thing to take away from “Me And Your Mama,” it’s to expect the unexpected from Childish Gambino. As a matter of fact, spare yourself the trouble and just don’t expect anything that all. The guy is just not of this planet.