In the quest to win 2018, Donald Glover is already blowing out the competition early in the second quarter. Last week, Glover wrapped the second season of the brilliant Atlanta, a series that has only grown funnier and queasier as it’s progressed. This week, his latest single as Childish Gambino, “This Is America,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, buoyed by near-unanimous praise on social media and from professional pundits. And next week, Glover will star as a young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film he stole the moment he flashed that mega-watt grin in a teaser that aired during the Super Bowl in February.
In terms of sheer numbers — dollars, media coverage, worshipful fanboys — Solo has outsized importance for Glover’s career. But when it comes to less tangible properties, like buzz and prestige, “This Is America” put Glover and Childish Gambino (Glover often refers to his hip-hop alter ego in the third person) on a whole new level.
Sure, Childish Gambino’s most recent album, 2016’s Awaken, My Love! was nominated earlier this year for an Album Of The Year Grammy. But that can’t quite compare to the “spokesman of a generation”-style praise that “This Is America” has garnered. The song — which comments on America’s gun epidemic and the undue burden it puts on this country’s black communities to cope, grieve, and survive — and accompanying video directed by Atlanta co-conspirator Hiro Murai has been declared, among other superlatives, “a true picture of America,” “a powerful portrait of black-American existentialism,” and “proof that Glover can thrill and challenge audiences in any medium.” That’s a lot to pull off in just four minutes and four seconds.
With Glover’s rise coinciding with Kanye West’s bizarre public decline, Childish Gambino has suddenly been positioned as the new figurehead of the cultural, political, and artistic zeitgeist. But not even Kanye has ever had simultaneous success in as many different mediums at once as Glover. This is like Whitney Houston at the peak of The Bodyguard or Prince during the reign of Purple Rain, if only Whitney and Prince had also created and starred in visionary TV shows at the time of their concurrent music/film triumphs.
Most incredible of all of Glover’s recent achievements is “This Is America,” which instantly felt like a signature pop culture moment of the year when the video debuted the same weekend that Glover hosted Saturday Night Live. (Which, it should be noted, was one of the best SNL episodes this season. Dude is on a serious “George Segal in California Split“-level roll right now.) It was especially amazing if you happened to remember that Childish Gambino was once, to quote Noisey, “one of the most automatically hated rappers currently in the game.” That’s honestly not an exaggeration. If a music fan from 2011 time traveled seven years in the future and read this week’s headlines, we would all have a lot of explaining to do, even after the Trump shock wore off.
“Childish Gambino? Really?” the traveler would inquire. “How in the hell did this happen?”