In music, everything is an outgrowth of something else. Nothing really gets created in a vacuum, and Donald Glover doesn’t begin where Mos Def ends.
I couldn’t say for sure whether Donald Glover is or was a Mos Def fan, but given his age, it’s hard to imagine that he, like millions of other impressionable kids, weren’t in some ways influenced by the late 90’s, early 2000’s work of Mos Def, Andre 3000, Common and N.E.R.D., among others.
Some of this music (but certainly not all of it) was genre-defying, and for a “weirdo” — black, white or any color really — it was easy to see parts of who you were, who you wanted to be, reflected back to you in these records. That’s to say nothing of the acting roles or even just what these guys looked like.
I’ve only interviewed Donald Glover once, back in 2012, but I definitely remember that at the time he was not particularly well-liked by the Pitchfork set, nor had he really been embraced by what you might consider the “urban” audience (the typical XXL magazine reader, if you will).
In this, off the rip Donald Glover was a lot different from Mos Def, because something like Community — it kind of gave you a peculiar reason to pay attention to him, but also, it gave you an easy reason to write the guy off.
And a lot of people did write Donald Glover off. I remember hearing his early work and feeling that the things he was speaking about, though they weren’t necessarily mainstream ideas, certainly represented a particular experience in America that many artists weren’t speaking to. But it didn’t really fit into a neat little box, which is why it was kind of overlooked.
Could you say that about Mos Def? Not really. I’m not sure if people were that open to the narrative he was kicking either, but I think if anything, Mos really benefited from an extremely vibrant period in underground music — and more crucially, an extremely vibrant time period in arts culture.
The late 90’s, early 2000’s — there was so much money in the system and so much bullshit on the airwaves, that the counterculture, particularly the hip-hop counterculture, was very strong. So, it took Mos Def probably one project to do what it took Donald Glover five mixtapes and two albums to accomplish. By then, there wasn’t even a hip-hop underground to be a part of. There was just blogs and other assorted bullshit.
Ultimately, too, you have to look at what has happened outside the lines, the other things have contributed to how someone like Mos Def’s career has progressed. That’s a story for another day and a bigger paycheck, but you know… there’s a story there, for sure.
Hopefully Donald Glover doesn’t get sidetracked by the same stuff.