New Heroes, Same Old Mistakes: Childish Gambino, 'SNL' and the Dangers of Anointing a 'New Kanye'

Kanye West & Childish Gambino
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

Kanye West & Childish Gambino

If you were watching Saturday Night Live on Saturday (May 5), it'd be very easy to see it as a torch-passing moment between stars of two different generations.  

On the receiving end was Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, who took full advantage of his hosting/performing double-duties to showcase the full array of his often-dizzying talents. Glover's performances -- which debuted two new songs, the irresistible, Pharrell-like cool breeze "Saturday" and the far more challenging (and less easily analogized) "This Is America" -- were brilliant in their energy and staging. And he was charming in a variety of inspired SNL sketches, which ranged from a hilariously out-of-nowhere sendup of Oran "Juice" Jones' 1986 R&B vengeance ballad "The Rain" to a perfectly on-point Star Wars diversity summit -- which also served as a reminder that, oh yeah, in addition to his music and hit TV show, Glover's about to star in one of the biggest movies of the year, too. 

Meanwhile, on the giving end -- invisibly, but unmistakably -- was Kanye West. Yeezy's presence loomed large in the episode, with his inflammatory recent tweet-storming, video interviews and new music serving as the subject of a Quiet Place parody that saw Glover and a variety of cast members doom themselves by being unable to resist yelling in horror over the rap legend's behavior. Even more damning (and much more succinct) was a moment during the weekly Weekend Update news segment, where anchor Michael Che glanced at a headline with a picture of West and the caption "Slavery was a choice," and simply commented with an eye-roll, "Pass." 

The intersecting timelines of the two artists -- Glover's ascent to multi-media superstardom, simultaneous with West's seeming decline into cautionary tale status -- was obvious, and certainly didn't escape the Internet's attention, particularly after the former dropped the "This Is America" video, the kind of controversial, confrontational visual West used to be known for making. The tweets came fast and furious declaring the takeover: "If kanye was woke as he was a decade ago, THIS is the kind of stuff I’d imagine he’d be putting out today," wrote one user, "Get Kanye West out of here. Childish Gambino taking his spot," proclaimed another. Even Cheo Hodari Choker, creator of Luke Cage, couldn't help but note the seeming changing of the guard. Fans have long lamented the disappearance of the fabled Old Kanye, but never before have they been so quick and so passionate to anoint his successor. 

Lost in the symbolic transition of power here is the irony of this line of thinking playing a large part in what necessitated the perceived demand for a Next Kanye in the first place. On Pitchfork, Jayson Greene wrote last week about the destructive nature of the need to proclaim artists geniuses, and how that ends up with those artists walling themselves off from the kind of criticism they may need to hear. Eventually, they feel so secure in the advanced nature of their ideas, and that their validation will come in history, if not in their own time, that they stop considering their potentially harmful effects. Kanye West's recent undoing is undoubtedly tied to his unwavering self-belief -- "I don't agree 100 percent with anyone but myself," he recently broadcasted -- and given how many times he's navigated through rocky career waters (with incidents relating to Taylor Swift, Bill Cosby, Amber Rose and many others) while still being proclaimed a visionary at the end, it's not totally surprising that he came to the conclusion that his brilliance was beyond reproach. 

Like Kanye, Donald Glover has been responsible for moments of true artistic greatness. His Prince-channeling performance of crossover smash "Redbone" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is about as captivating a non-Beyoncé performance as televised in recent memory. The "Teddy Perkins" episode of his TV series Atlanta, starring Glover in unrecognizable whiteface as the titular tortured artist, is one of the decade's greatest horror films, singularly unnerving and unshakeable. And his recent SNL live performances, combined with the "America" video, carried the kind of electricity we're lucky to get from the pop world a handful of times a year. 

But getting carried away in proclaiming Glover's inexorable excellence -- particularly in West's stead -- does no one any favors, least of all the artist himself. Glover has already flirted with moments of Kanye-like self-aggrandizement: In a recent New Yorker profile, he responded to a question about if there's anything he's bad at with an answer that began "To be honest, no," and eventually wound its way to "I feel like Jesus. I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work -- but I don’t know if humanity is worth it..." He's also, at times, shut himself off from potential criticism over being out of bounds with his commentary; when asked by The New York Times if he worried about there being things he "can or can't say" with stories on Atlanta, he dismissed the concern alternately as "a problem millennials have" and "a white problem, to be honest."

It's also worth remembering that the narrative of Glover as artistic savior is a relatively new one. Up until his most recent album, the Grammy-nominated Awaken, My Love!, Glover's work as Childish Gambino drew a largely negative critical reception: Pitchfork gave his debut LP Camp a staggeringly low 1.6 score, calling the artist "preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware," while SPIN awarded 2013's Because the Internet a 2/10 rating and Worst New Music designation. And though Glover is now being heralded as a hero for the woke moment of 2018, the artist doesn't have a spotless record in his past art: his early rap often fetishized Asian women in uncomfortable ways, and the less said about his former college comedy troupe's "Bro rape" sketch, the better.

This is by no means to say that Donald Glover's past makes him an unworthy star for 2018 -- for either creative or moral reasons -- or to suggest that he can't improve or evolve as an artist and person. It just means that he's not a flawless artist, just like every artist who came before him. And similar to all other artists, Glover should be celebrated and questioned when appropriate, without thinking that doing one supersedes the need for the other. He can make works that are unassailable in their genius, without ascending to that untouchable level himself, as an artistic or public figure. And for the record, some writers have raised reasonable concerns about the "This Is America" video, calling it sensationalistic or unnecessarily triggering. The criticism is arguable, as all criticism is, but the dialogue is necessary.

Glover is exceedingly talented and multi-faceted as an artist, and he's largely earned his place as one of the most acclaimed creatives and performers of his time. But it's on us, as critics and fans, to make sure that we don't make it easy to conflate acclaim with worship. Declaring Glover the next West is perpetuating the same cycle that helped bring Kanye to this new low, building the myth of his genius to a point where he may reach a similar point of not trusting anyone's opinion completely but his own. On some level, the need to proclaim New Kanyes is what ends up leading them to turn into Old Kanyes. Do so, and you might find yourself watching some up-and-comer on SNL in 2028 and thinking "If Childish Gambino was woke as he was a decade ago, THIS is the kind of stuff I’d imagine he’d be putting out today..."