A rapper by the name of Childish Gambino has been catching ears online and in concert lately via his collection of free albums and recently released self titled EP. At first glance it’s easy to notice his Dwayne Carter-influenced delivery as well as his penchant to involve his lady killer in punchlines. Nonetheless, he’s got that average guy/witty geek mystique appeal internet rap fans dig.
Childish Gambino, in case you haven’t heard, is the stage name of actor/comedian Donald Glover. Glover initially gained recognition online via his appearances on “Derrick” comedy sketches as well as through his endeavors in stand up. He parlayed those experiences into becoming an Emmy-winning writer for 30 Rock as well as a cast member on NBC’s Community: which recently got picked up for a third season. Community‘s ratings aren’t exactly high but it’s got a loyal, vocal and online-savvy fan base. So, to put things in perspective, Glover isn’t a megastar in so much as he’s a recognizable figure in the entertainment biz.
Gambino’s been rapping since ’08 so he’s far from an overnight sensation. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that much of his budding popularity in music stems from his success in comedy. People are obviously surprised he raps beyond basic patterns and produces his beats. Nevertheless, take a song like “Freeks and Geeks” as seen above, replace him and put any of the lesser known rap blog regulars on it with the same cadence and energy; I find it hard to believe it’d get the same amount of looks. That’s not to say he’s talentless. Dude’s pretty funny in my eyes and is steadily improving his rhymes. But his fame serves to his advantage as an independent artist.
The same could be said somewhat for, wait for it….Aubrey “Drake” Graham. Drake went from being a child actor turned pay-to-play indie rapper to one of the biggest names in (pop) rap over years of dropping free music. He sharpened his rapping chops on Room for Improvement as well as Comeback Season and exhibited his aptitude for creating Top 40 records in So Far Gone: his landmark free album.
Joining Young Money as well as signing to a lucrative deal with Universal obviously had much to do with his acclaim. But he came from an acting background and switched gears to become a well known entertainer. The discrepancies between Glover and Drake start with the fact that Degrassi, a Canadian teen drama, wasn’t as popular as the shows Glover works on. Therefore, Drake had to do more legwork to win over American fans since he was a new face to them. Additionally, Gambino hasn’t sold a record yet as opposed to his platinum status peer. Nevertheless, they both used their rising fame and earnings in acting to fund their music careers.
The larger issue here is gauging the validity of crossover entertainers. They may care and appreciate the work that goes into making songs. However it’s just as easy to assume they’re being opportunistic or using their bank account to support their hobby on a grander scale. I’m not accusing Glover or Drake of doing this since I can only speculate at this point. Also it’s plain to see dabbling, let alone starting a music career, is prohibitively expensive and difficult to profit from. Still, the latter point is problematic since it enables crossover talent to shine over deserving, on the bubble artists on small budgets. It’s not fair but let’s be real. It’s naive to think the music industry is just. Additionally, things get complicated if such actor/rapper types actually blow up; paving the way for others to mime them with mixed success.
I’m not totally against crossover talents. For instance, I’m not mad at artists pursuing movie and TV roles as long as they can actually act; Will Smith and Ludacris (at least in Crash) come to mind. Moreover, I don’t subscribe to the theory that artists have to be starving or “middle class” in order to be considered legitimate. You ought to get shine if you’re talented, have a good work ethic and can entertain people. It’s just that those with more visibility and deeper pockets may appear to be cutting in line when it comes to gaining acceptance in another field. It’s the smart thing to do when you can prove your worth in another career as it showcases your multifaceted abilities, or at the very least, ability to grab notable attention. Conversely, It can come off as disingenuous and hurts your credibility if done poorly.