Every so often, we collectively witness a Moment. It’s hard to pin down or even describe exactly what these cultural Moments are, but when they happen, you damn sure know what’s going on.
On the evening of May 5, 2018, Donald Glover — Childish Gambino when he’s in the studio — dropped both the song and music video for his single “This Is America.” In a year otherwise largely devoid of Moments, Glover produced a spectacular and immediate one that night. The hypnotic and catchy song and video each provided forceful and dazzling commentaries on gun control, race and the state of hip-hop. Glover’s masterpiece achieved a rare dual existence after its release: It evoked imagery that had internet sleuths psychoanalyzing lyrics and symbols with Kubrickian precision, and it played on the radio.
It was, in itself, a Moment. You remember where you were when you watched “This Is America” for the first time.
The most astonishing thing about “This Is America,” though, wasn’t just that it was not the most impressive feat Glover achieved in 2018. It was that it wasn’t the most impressive Moment he had produced in the previous three weeks.
It was that kind of year for Glover — the kind when an artist leaps from famous and talented with potential to superstar.
A brief rundown:
- March 1: “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” the long-awaited second season of the television show Glover created, writes, directs and stars in, premieres.
- May 5: Glover releases “This Is America” on his YouTube channel (now with more than 432 million YouTube hits and counting) immediately after hosting and performing as the musical act on “Saturday Night Live.”
- May 10: Glover stars as Lando Calrissian in “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (which brings in nearly $400 million at the global box office).
In a year that saw his immediate musical peers falter — be it Kanye West getting Trump-ed or Drake getting stale (and, ahem, Pusha T-ed) — and in which no television show would usurp “Atlanta” from its throne as the small screen’s best, Glover dominated pop culture in 2018 in an unprecedented fashion.
FX’s “Atlanta,” in particular, shined. Following the lives of rap manager Earn (Glover), schoolteacher Van (Zazie Beetz), sidekick Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) as each navigates the challenges the titular city presents, the show’s willingness to take risks and dash in and out of the traditional television framework set it apart from anything else within the medium in 2018.
Less than a month before “This Is America” dropped, the sixth episode of “Atlanta: Robbin’ Season,” “Teddy Perkins” — the best TV episode of 2018, period — aired on FX. “Teddy Perkins” is the greatest triumph of Glover’s career. A cross-genre masterpiece blending horror, suspense and comedy, the Glover-written episode shocked viewers with its blunt yet complicated treatment of a tense interaction between Darius and an ex-musician calling himself Teddy Perkins. Darius’ simple mission of buying a secondhand piano takes a turn as he meets the instrument’s owner, Perkins.
Perkins looks and sounds nothing like Donald Glover — he has long, combed-over hair, a squealish, high-pitched voice and almost oddly pale skin (which he explains as coming from a rare skin condition). Yet the biggest reveal in the episode’s aftermath was that Glover himself had transformed into Perkins’ character for the show, a stunning metamorphosis that only added to the episode’s surreal nature. The episode belongs to Glover and his portrayal of the decrepit Perkins, a peculiarly sensitive and haunting character who, during his time with Darius, swings from the hilarity of digging into a raw ostrich egg with a spoon to the torment of revealing his father’s abuse to his would-be customer with volatile ease. Glover’s portrayal is poignant, and the complex character he plays — especially considering the inevitability of the violent end he meets — challenges the viewer to think critically about issues of identity, abuse and fame.
Showrunners and actors are lucky to be involved with a single episode that special in their entire careers. Glover has produced two seasons’ worth — in both roles.
Maybe the only blemish on his 2018 resume was his involvement in “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” a relative critical and financial flop given the film’s lofty expectations. The film though, was doomed by production issues more so than any individual performance — particularly that of Glover, who filled Billy Dee Williams’ shoes as Calrissian just fine.
When you produce both the most culturally significant song and television show of the year, though, disappointments like “Solo: A Star Wars Story” (which still grabbed the zeitgeist in its buildup and ranked highly at the domestic box office for consecutive weeks in May) are easier to swallow. And that’s exactly what Glover did. No artist made more of an impact as a stand-alone musician, showrunner or actor. With his sweeping vision and exhaustive attention to detail, Glover captured a particular moment in a particular time more creatively than anyone in two separate forms of art.
That’s simply never been done before. Donald Glover owned 2018.
Contact Nicky Shapiro at [email protected] .