Occupying an alter-ego is nothing new.
David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust, an alien rockstar, in 1972. Eminem introduced his infamously violent Slim Shady persona in 1999. Beyoncé had a fleeting tenure as Sasha Fierce, an alter-ego explored on her 2008 double album I Am... Sasha Fierce. Though artists the world over have flirted with the boundary between person and persona, it remains an interesting and infrequent approach to creativity.
The retirement of a persona lends an interesting perspective to an artist's achievements. It allows the artist to move on from a body of work, segmenting certain records in a complete, overarching project. It suspends this work in a body independent from their ongoing efforts, impervious to the occasional critical revisionism brought on by sub-par releases.
Beyond these pragmatic reasons, however, the use of musical alter-egos can cast artists as both musicians and performers, creating works whilst in character. Donald Glover continues to suggest that he's hanging up his Childish Gambino outfit for good, leaving his alter-ego fuelled artistry behind in favour of a different approach. The long-teased retirement of Gambino prompted me to consider alter-egos in music and the idea of creating from within another psyche. Let's consider two of hip-hop's foremost alter-egos: Childish Gambino and MF DOOM, two wildly different personas.
Childish - But Had To Grow Up
Glover's retirement of the Gambino moniker signifies the end of an era.
This could very well be his intention: segmenting his creative pursuits into 'periods,' a la Picasso. In closing the curtains on his Gambino phase, Glover may feel less encumbered by both audience expectations and his previous stylistic choices. Artists such as Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry (nee Katy Hudson) have reinvented themselves in order to jettison their previously established sounds: Azalea abandoned her short-lived career as a pop singer whilst Perry moved past her unsuccessful 2001 Christian rock debut.
Another illuminating example is alt-pop group Jack's Mannequin, whose three album catalogue remains preserved within the defunct outfit whilst the band members moved on to another project with a nigh-identical lineup. There's a certain sentimentality attached to outfits borne from formative experiences, and the retirement of these pseudonyms can suggest personal evolution or a willingness to artistically evolve.
Glover debuted Childish Gambino aged 26. He's since starred in cult sitcom Community, acclaimed films The Martian and Magic Mike XXL, and FX standout Atlanta, a program he also wrote and directed. His music has evolved from nerd-rap to psychedelic soul, with 2011's Camp and 2016's Awaken, My Love! seemingly the work of two distinct artists.
Glover's always suggested that he's distinct from Gambino, but his use of the moniker has only infrequently reflected this distinction. In an interview with Noisey, the author notes that Glover is "technically here as his rap alter ego Childish Gambino, on a label-mandated press tour promoting his new rap album Because the Internet." Gambino alludes to this distinction again on BTI standout "III. life, the biggest troll (andrew auernheimer)," rapping:
"I mean where's the line between Donnie G and Gambino?"
He reinforces this distinction by alluding to "growing up," a not-so-subtle nod to the impermanence of his alias. Gambino even name checks Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt's fragmented character from Fight Club.
As a personality existing outside his music, Gambino maintains a fairly regular cultural presence. He exists on Instagram, gives interviews to music magazines such as Noisey and Complex, and vents his thoughts in an innocuous way. In one such interview, Gambino broaches the topic of suicide:
"After I came off tour, we went to Australia and I was just super depressed. I mean, I tried to kill myself."
Was this admission an extension of Gambino's disillusioned worldview, explored on Because The Internet, or a legitimate cry for help? He followed it with a spate of emotionally honest Instagram posts discussing his deepest insecurities, prompting concern from fans. In the years since, however, Glover has distanced himself from his suicidal admissions and distressing vents, calling his attempt "nobody’s business."
Glover always presented Gambino as a three-dimensional human being in his own right - his divisive debut, Camp, was called "witty, heartfelt, honest and occasionally uproarious" and "a juxtaposition of mostly depressing, self-loathing rap." Gambino's raps are products of his notoriously fragile psyche, a cause for concern on both Camp and Because The Internet. He's an outsider, a rapper cast off by a culture who feels he's too fortunate for a fledging hip hop career. This blurs the distinction between Gambino and Glover ever further, as Gambino gives voice to the insecurities that plague Glover.
A talented comedian, actor and screenwriter prior to his foray into hip hop, Glover's place in hip hop culture has been contentious amongst those who maintain his lack of lyrical talent and comparably 'cozy' upbringing. Gambino's issues with identity mirror Glover's real-life predicaments in such a way that it seems as though there's no true distinction between the two. This suggests a number of possibilities: that the Glover/Gambino distinction is an ad-hoc amendment, that Glover uses Gambino as an exercise in catharsis, that Gambino is merely Glover's state of mind, and so on.
It makes you think: where's the line between Donnie G and Gambino? Glover deliberately blurs the line, the ambiguity an aspect of the Childish Gambino experience.
The Doombot Problem
British-born emcee Daniel Dumile has been at the forefront of character-based artistry for two decades. His 1999 debut, Operation Doomsday, introduced masked villain MF DOOM to the world. He notably played with form on Madvilliany standout "Fancy Clown," in which Dumile's Viktor Vaughn character laments his girlfriend's infidelity on finding that she's cheated with Dumile's DOOM persona.
DOOM's social media presence is less nuanced than Gambino's. His sole tweet sums up his approach:
Despite the fact that MF DOOM has been Dumile's default outfit since his 1999 debut, Dumile's relationship with his alias is anything but clear-cut. Much of this ambiguity arises from DOOM's live shows, which have both cost him fans and won him admirers.
The distance between performer and personality explored through Dumile's infamous use of 'Doombots.' Whilst comic book Doombots are expendable replicas of Doctor Doom himself, Dumile's Doombots are oft-unconvincing stand-ins who perform in lieu of the actual masked emcee. They've incurred the wrath of infuriated concert goers in San Bernadino, London, Los Angeles and Chicago. Fans and commentators generally respond to this in one of two ways: some maintain that sending masked imposters is in keeping with Dumile's villainous persona, whilst others feel it's a move that cons concertgoers out of both money and enjoyment. It can be framed as a grand statement or a thoughtless, insulting ploy, which is one of the reasons it's so discussed amongst fans.
If Dumile's Doombot ploy is earnest, then what does it tell us about the character of MF DOOM? Firstly, MF DOOM is not Daniel Dumile, and Daniel Dumile is not MF DOOM - well, not always. On the occasions he wears the mask, Dumile becomes DOOM, imbued with the trademark drawl and poetic lyricism. DOOM himself responded to the controversy in 2009, telling Rolling Stone "everything that [I] do is villain style." He elaborated:
"The character that I hired, he got paid for it. There's no impostor. When I go to a show, I'm going to hear the music. I'm not going to see no particular person."
Dumile's rebuttal of the imposter accusations rests on a key fact: that there was no imposter. Whilst Dumile himself was not present, and the DOOM that performed was not Dumile, he was no less DOOM than if he were Dumile. In a 2009 interview with Ta-Nahisi Coates, Dumile suggested that this was his intention all along.
“I’m the writer, I’m the director... If I was to go out there without the mask on, they’d be like, ‘Who the fuck is this?' I might send a white dude next. Whoever plays the character plays the character . . . I’ll send a Chinese nigger. I’ll send ten Chinese niggers. I might send the Blue Man Group.”
It seems that the character now exists entirely independently of Dumile, an undoubtedly convenient fact for a man who'd rather not appear at his own shows. Convenient or not, the quote does touch on Dumile's penchant for anonymity. He'd decided on obscuring his face long before he first donned the now-famed mask, wearing a stocking over his head as he honed his craft at NYC's Nuyorican Poet's Café. It's unclear whether this was a deliberate artistic choice or an escape from his growing underground reputation as Zev Love X, but either way, his obscured face eventually became more recognisable than his unmasked appearance.
Dumile's belief that artists should be heard, not seen, is in keeping with a potential philosophy underpinning his mask: the real-life identity of the musician is immaterial when compared to the musical output. Dumile told Coates that the mask was steeped in the very celebrity it subverts:
"A visual always brings a first impression. But if there’s going to be a first impression I might as well use it to control the story. So why not do something like throw a mask on?”
Fans clamour to see the masked villain, but his love of villainy prompts a ploy that leaves them bitterly disappointed. No countercultural belief system can make the creator immaterial to his art, but Dumile feels he isn't necessarily the creator: that's MF DOOM. An attempt to artistically weaponise his first impression evolved into a cross-discipline exercise in performance, casting Dumile as a musician, a creator, a director and a curator.
There's always a chance that his intellectualised approach to skipping out on shows is a last-ditch attempt to provide reasons for his disappointing absences, and without confronting DOOM directly, there's no way to know exactly how earnest his reasoning is. He does provide us with an interesting predicament from the intersection of artist and alter-ego; the convergence of music and theatre.
The junction of performance art and musicianship offers interesting opportunities for creators and consumers alike. Used correctly, alter-egos can develop their own distinct voices and explore ideas of their own volition, spurning narratives that incorporate their music, their interviews and their curated lifestyles. Inhabiting personas for entire records - the writing, recording, promoting and performing - means years of intense performance art.
The differences between Gambino and DOOM are many: whilst Glover alone inhabits the Gambino persona, DOOM is a multidisciplinary project by writer-director-musician Daniel Dumile. In his interviews, Dumile casts MF DOOM as a sort of hip hop James Bond: an iconic character inhabited by a swathe of largely immaterial performers. Dumile himself occupied three seperate alter-egos from 1999 to 2003, showing a character-actor disconnect which contrasts against Glover's long-term immersion. It's this immersion that makes Gambino's retirement so noteworthy: whilst Dumile's shown himself to revisit characters from album-to-album, Glover's all-or-nothing approach suggests a strict finality.
There's undoubtedly something compelling about this approach to narrative. Cultivating the background of a persona adds to the musical experience in interesting ways, the character's history complementing the lyrical content and contextualising the themes within. The intersection of performance art and musicianship is seldom explored, and whilst artists such as Glover and Dumile flirt with the boundaries of stardom, they presage a future where aspiring artists fuse ideas of character, celebrity, narrative, direction and music into an all-encompassing artistic vision.