So, Donald Glover did … something this weekend … maybe? At around 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, an hour’s worth of new music appeared on a website called “Donald Glover Presents,” using the same font and titling that accompanied the release of the musician and actor’s Adidas sneaker collaboration last spring. The music streamed on a loop for around 12 hours and abruptly stopped. Fans identified bits of the 12-song collection as tunes premiered on Childish Gambino’s 2019 This Is America tour. The track list included “Algorythm,” a song Glover gifted to select fans as a ticket bonus and also used as part of the soundtrack for Pharos, his augmented-reality app; “Feels Like Summer,” the B-side from 2018’s Summer Pack EP; and “Time,” the apocalyptic song Guava Island’s lead character Deni overhears when he slips into church about midway through the film. Missing are Summer Pack’s A-side “Summertime Magic,” the “Algorythm” companion cut “All Night,” and the hit, “This Is America.” It’s not clear whether this was an official stream or an elaborate leak. Glover’s socials remain fallow, and his manager, Fam Udeorji, deleted Twitter after sharing a link to “Donald Glover Presents.” Was this thing supposed to come out or not?
Without a statement of intent from the artist, we can’t pick this thing apart like an official release, but we can talk about what we heard, right? “Presents” collects some of the darkest, most out-there material in Donald Glover’s catalogue, upping the ante on the world-weariness of Awaken, My Love! and the tech-savvy malaise of Because the Internet. The intro races like a chase sequence, blending West African percussion sounds (like those Childish Gambino producer Ludwig Göransson sought out while scoring Black Panther) with harrowing electronics and vocal manipulation that evoke the future shock of Kanye West’s Yeezus (and its herald, Owl Pharaoh by Travis Scott). You’re just as likely to hear Glover’s pure singing voice on “Presents” as you are to hear a ghoulish distortion of it. There’s a track that’s just a spirited robot choir singing a prescient lyric about avoiding parties. At its climax, “Algorythm” drops the beat and lets Glover hit the chorus, an interpolation of hip-hop-soul duo Zhané’s 1993 smash “Hey Mr. D.J.,” in a warped, low ramble that sounds like a legion of demons getting busy in a karaoke club. In the 21 Savage collab fans are calling “Vibrate,” Glover eats shrooms and emotes about unusual sensations in a tinny tone and mousy falsetto that sound as physically disorienting and transformative as tripping feels.
Where Awaken took inspiration from the heady, political funk perfected in the ’70s across the George Clinton extended universe, the songs and pieces of songs comprising “Donald Glover Presents” branch forward and outward, revisiting noteworthy moments in black hippie history. The last album’s touchstones were Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young and Bootsy Collins’s Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band, but the brightest spots in the new songs evoke Prince and the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day, Lenny Kravitz’s Let Love Rule, and P.M. Dawn’s The Bliss Album …? (Vibrations of Love and Anger and the Ponderance of Life and Existence), works that filtered their songwriters’ dissatisfaction with the American experience through distractingly pleasing melodies. “Time” is the haymaker in the “Presents” collection, a trippy thought spiral about exactly how fucked we are that’s offset by stacks of beautiful sound. “Under the Sun,” its mirror image, affixes a message of hope to darker melodies and histrionic vocals. These songs seem built to inspire a live crowd; it’s worth note that some of them premiered on the This Is America trek.
There’s no way this is the final form, though, right? The mixes could be cleaner, and the project lacks the intent and thematic cohesion that are the calling cards of marquee Childish Gambino projects and lesser EPs and mixtapes like STN MTN, Kauai, and Royalty, which also housed songs that felt conceptually of a piece. “Presents” hits more like Frank Ocean’s Endless, another loose batch of solid songs that dropped out of the sky without an explanation or an easy (legal) way to stream the thing on the go. Until we get more story, let’s receive “Donald Glover Presents” as an enticing enigma, a quick musical jolt in a month where we could all use a few more of the good kind of surprises.