Hip-hop may be more emotionally available than ever, but Donald Glover, who's best-known for his role on NBC's hit sitcom "Community" and who raps under the name Childish Gambino, still considers himself an outsider. " J. Cole and Drake are way cooler than me," he says on his tour bus one night in October. "Drake wears gold chains. I could never pull off wearing chains. J. Cole's been to jail. I haven't."
And it's true. Or at least part of it. Even as artists like Cole and Drake have found success bucking hip-hop's traditionally aggressive stance and opening up about their insecurities and heartbreak, Glover's rhymes, which center on his suburban identity struggles relating to his black peers and being called "Oreo" at his Atlanta high school, are still considered a tough sell.
"People are always like, 'It's not hard enough,'" he says of listeners' reaction. "I'm like, 'There's a bunch of hard shit out there. It's everywhere. If you don't like my shit, get a 50 Cent album. Buy a Meek Mill album.' The thing that bothers me is that people hear my stuff and they don't want it to exist. They would like to take it out of the world."
But instead of taking it out of the world, Glover is looking to put more of his material into it. His debut album as Gambino, "Camp," arrives Nov. 15 on Glassnote.
"We want to take what he's built in a number of worlds and kind of bridge the fact that he can live in the alternative indie world and the urban hip-hop arena as well," Glassnote marketing and licensing head YiPei Chen-Josephson says.
And what Glover has already built has been impressive. After graduating from New York University in 2006, he landed a writing job on NBC's "30 Rock," which then led to his role as goofy community college student Troy Barnes on "Community." But this isn't the story of an actor-turned-rapper. Glover has been rapping since the fourth grade: He found his rap name during his sophomore year by typing his name into Staten Island rap crew Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Name generator website. It just wasn't until this year that his flurry of mixtapes paid off.
Glover signed to Glassnote -- home to breakout successes Mumford & Sons and Phoenix -- after attracting the label's attention following his performance as host of the 2011 MTV Woodie Awards. Working with film composer friend Ludwig Göransson, Glover then helped produce his entire debut.
"Is there room in the game for a lame that rhymes, who wears short shorts and tells jokes sometimes," Glover raps on "All the Shine," reflecting the type of poignant, yet self-deprecating rhymes found throughout Camp. The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes. On Halloween, Glover stood onstage at a packed Brooklyn Bowl in New York performing the bulk of his album for the first time dressed as a park ranger in a khaki shirt, clip-on tie and pants that stopped well before the knees. He drew an even bigger audience a few nights later when he performed at Manhattan's Terminal 5.
And so far, his appeal runs wide. He's big in college towns and under the audience's masked faces at the Halloween show were several races. "I go to Vancouver and I get mad love from Asians," says Glover, who manages his touring schedule around his "Community" commitments. "Filipinos dig me. And in Detroit it's like the lower-class white people feel me because they're poor, but they'll never be black enough -- kind of like me."