I was recently prompted by a reader about Childish Gambino‘s transition from nerdy, name-dropping comedian-turned-rapper to gritty, thought-provoking lyricist. The whole subject caused me to revisit Gambino’s discography, which seems appropriate considering the upcoming release of his second commercial LP Because the Internet (out December 10th). The result of my revisitation is this list of his 15 Best Songs, which can almost act as the evolution of Gambino from Poindexter to Royalty.
1. Freaks and Geeks
This is the song that, with its accompanying video, took Childish Gambino to the next level. It was the centerpiece of my favorite ‘Bino project EP and is packed with both smart and silly witticisms that attracted me to Gambino in the first place.
2. Break (AOTL)
First of all, this is not a cover. It’s an entire “All of the Lights” remake. On it Gambino discusses his Asian fetish for the millionth time but also delves candidly into the relationship with that girl he’s liked “since back when [he] was just a sophomore,” which I think reached a, um, climax just before the release of this song.
While it might not sound like it, “Heartbeat” is the ultimate unrequited love song. Like, the whole premise is not being able to be with that girl who you think is the one. One of the really great things Donald did on Camp was paint an idea of city life as a young adult (on this song and “L.E.S.,” especially). Well, that life is depicted in all of its glory, concluding with four rhetorical questions that really just express the realest sentiment.
“Bonfire” a.k.a. “Freaks and Geeks, Pt. 2” does not quite live up to its sister song, but its lightning fast verses are chock-full of both cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud funny punchlines.
5. Bitch, Look At Me Now (Two Weeks)
“I do not talk, I am just a rapper.” This song started everything. I mentioned in my Camp review that I first discovered CG on Pretty Much Amazing with their post about “Bitch, Look At Me Now.” The Grizzly Bear song in the background is, well, classic, and Donald does everything right with his verses, balancing lines about his youth and upbringing with lines about his impressive, multi-hyphenate career path.
6. These Girls (ft. Garfunkel and Oates)
In high school I listened to this song too much. I guess it’s a pre-Weeknd, indie R&B song, which just goes to show Gambino’s range as an artist. Also — “We are really close and this party’s really loud” is easily one of my favorite moments from any Childish song ever.
7. Rolling in the Deep (ft. Adele & Jamie xx)
This is the most played song on my iTunes on my desktop at home, but I had to knock it down to 7 because ‘Bino only has one verse on it. I mean, it is a great verse, featuring the memorable line, “A Michael Cera knockoff, I guess I wasn’t white enough,” which is a very real line for me as a person of color.
8. Not Going Back (ft. Beldina Malaika)
The last verse on “Not Going Back” is probably Childish’s best verse ever. The song as a whole references the Chinua Achebe novel Things Fall Apart (which I have read), pop singer Taylor Dayne, Bruce Willis, Michael Scott, Gabourey Sidibe, In-N-Out burgers, #Donald4Spiderman, and a short anecdote about a scrapped song Donald wrote for Rashida Jones.
9. We Ain’t Them
“We Ain’t Them” documents why Childish thinks he belongs in the rap game. He discusses his origins, his famous friends, his career choices, and that shitty Pitchfork review. It might seem simple but it is actually a pretty affecting song.
10. Lights Turned On
I once asked a girl if I could start a mix CD I was making for her with a song that began “small chick with a fat ass.” This was that song, and I totally did make it the opening track to that mixtape. It’s just pure, adrenaline-boosting, EDM-infused fun, and it’s kinda hard not to enjoy.
11. The Longest Text Message
Drake is easily the best rapper to ever pen words about an ex-girlfriend. Where Childish edges him out is in his unfiltered, unforgiving anger directed towards them. For example, “The Longest Text Message” is a sharp, twisted message directed specifically at one girl. By the end you have to feel a little bad for the human person he is writing about, so probably just listen to this after a breakup.
12. Shoulda Known
When Royalty came out this seemed like the one song the rap Internet did not have a problem with. It features the balance Gambino has been seeking since he began the journey back to Stone Mountain. “Shoulda Known” smoothly blends together the lessons learned structure-wise and content-wise in the year and a half between EP and Royalty.
13. The Last
“I’m the last of a dying breed,” begins this epic recount of Donald’s childhood. It is a straight-rap, no-hook track and easily one of Gambino’s finest moments on the mic.
14. Almost There
Back when I was introducing Childish to my friends, I usually preluded this song by saying it is the saddest song ever made. “Almost There” is a cut from Poindexter, an album released all the way back in ’09 when Gambino was endorsing an annoying, nasally rap voice. If you can get past the voice, however, you will find a poignant yet probably overly emotional letter directed to an ex, and a fine rendition of Just Blaze’s “Song Cry” instrumental.
Initially, people were drawn to Gambino for two reasons: his honesty and his self-awareness. The latter of which a lot of people complained he lost on Camp. “Untouchable” was released just prior to the Camp rollout and is his most self-aware track to date. Like “Shoulda Known,” it finds the perfect balance between good raps and a good chorus.
Honorable Mentions: L.E.S., It’s On, R.I.P., and I’m Alright