The Year of Gambino

How Donald Glover came out on top of a seemingly unconquerable year

Illustrator: Sophie Stephens

Illustrator: Sophie Stephens

Donald, Childish, Lando, Troy, Earn—the names you know him by might vary, but by the end of 2016, you knew who he was. He’s a comedian, actor, writer, director, producer, rapper, and now recent father. At 33, there’s not much Donald Glover hasn’t done.

Early in his career, the soft-spoken comedy writer was namely known by his louder, angrier pseudonym, “Childish Gambino.” The inception of his enormous rapping alter-ego was humble. He got his stage name from the Wu-Tang Name Generator website while at a party and half-jokingly decided to make a few mixtapes under the pseudonym. Thus, Childish Gambino was born. “If I had known [the name] was going to be something for real, I wouldn’t have used it… but, I mean, it was the coolest one at the party,” said Glover.

A more novice, 2013-era Gambino forged a name for himself with hits like “Sweatpants,” “Bonfire,” and “Heartbeat.” His tracks were anthems, spewing venomous jabs and brazen innuendoes over a heavy beat and the occasional blaring siren. When Gambino dropped his latest album, “Awaken, My Love!” this past December, it was a beacon for a loyal fan-base that’s been waiting for over three years since his sophomore album “Because the Internet.”

“Awaken, My Love!” is a reinvention of sound for Gambino. The new album emulates the great R&B era of the 70’s with a rich, gooey, psychedelic-funk sound, reminiscent of bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, and a twinge of the early sounds of Prince. “Awaken, My Love!’s” syrupy sound shocked fans, but it shouldn’t have come as a total surprise. As an artist, Glover is constantly re-inventing himself, finding new mediums, new narratives, and now, an entirely new sound.

Glover’s renaissance doesn’t end there. His longstanding dream of joining the Spider-Man franchise is finally coming true. He’s confirmed to be in Marvel’s latest franchise reboot, “Spider-Man: Homecoming that hits theaters in August 2017. When rumors of rebooting a post-Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise circulated back in 2010, Glover tweeted his interest in playing the “first black Spider-Man,” and sent the internet into a frenzy. What started as a grassroots campaign for Glover to portray Peter Parker grew into a movement, and although Andrew Garfield was ultimately cast, Marvel heard Glover’s message loud and clear. Soon after, the character Miles Morales was created: a black Spider-Man saving the world in an alternate Marvel universe, inspired largely by Glover.

He’s a comedian, actor, writer, director, producer, rapper, and now recent father. At 33, there’s not much Donald Glover hasn’t done.

Glover isn’t done fulfilling childhood dreams just yet. He’ll also be playing a young Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo Star Wars spin-off movie. Glover joins the ranks of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, and Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the young Han Solo in the upcoming film. The infamous Cloud City scoundrel was originally portrayed by Billy Dee Williams, and as the new film’s directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller put it, “These are big shoes to fill, and an even bigger cape—but this one fits [Glover] perfectly.”

This past year also marked Glover’s return to the medium that gave him his start: television. He produces, directs, writes, and stars in his highly-anticipated labor of love “Atlanta” on FX. The show follows Atlanta’s overnight rapping sensation “Paperboi” (Brian Tyree Henry), his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), and his manager and cousin Earn (Glover) as they navigate their first taste of fame on the streets of Atlanta. As a former writer for “30 Rock,” Glover is no stranger to comedic screenwriting. “Atlanta’s” deadpan humor is jarringly funny and the cinematography paints an unexpected love poem to the city of Atlanta. The show’s critical clamor is growing louder with eight wins out of its eleven award nominations—and counting. This past month at the Golden Globes, Glover took home Best Musical or Comedy TV Series and Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy TV Series on behalf of “Atlanta.”

Glover’s time is invaluable, but not inexhaustible—there’s a price for being five men at once. I imagine his iCalendar looks more like a stressful mosaic of color than a recognizable schedule at this point. If you’re a fan of “Awaken, My Love!” there’s a chance you might not get to hear it live for quite some time. And if you’re hooked on “Atlanta,” you’re going to have to sit back and wait an entire year for season two.

If his resounding return in 2016 is any indication of what’s to come for the inimitable artist, 2017 might be his for the taking, too. “I’m not scared of the future at all,” Glover told “Time” in 2013. “The future is progress if you treat it right.”