Donald Glover & The Immersive Art of Worldbuilding
I was 16 when Donald Glover, under the stage name “Childish Gambino”, released his Grammy-nominated album Because the Internet. Almost a decade later, that album still stands out in my mind as the gold standard of how to package and release a work of art. Big statement, I know. But here’s why:
It was never just about the music.
Glover said so himself in a 2013 interview on Tim WestwoodTV:
“I don’t wanna make albums anymore…I feel it’s just kinda silly to make albums… just albums. You gotta make worlds and lives.”
What did he mean by “worlds and lives”? Well, let’s examine how Donald Glover, in the rollout of Because the Internet, transcended the limitations of the album format to tell an incredibly immersive story. Keep in mind that the following benefits can be achieved in any storytelling craft, whether you’re a musician, visual artist, prose writer, moviemaker, game developer, etc.
Multiple entry-points to the core story
Glover wasn’t just yapping empty words when he said he felt silly making just albums. In the rollout of Because the Internet, he released and/or performed the following:
- a 19-track album, split into 5 acts to accompany…
- an interactive screenplay also called Because the Internet
- a short film, Clapping for The Wrong Reasons
- an intimate-performance tour of mansions set up to look like the house of the story’s protagonist. “The Boy”
- a TumblrIRL art installation called The Boy’s Room
- a concert tour called The Deep Web Tour, which involved story-based performance art and the downloading of an app by concertgoers
Notice that three of six of those products don’t necessarily involve music. A person could read the screenplay, watch the short film and view the art installation, and still get the gist of Glover’s story — without ever hearing a full song from the album.
In embracing a variety of creative mediums, he expanded his reach and reduced the pressure for the core product to succeed.
Of course, Donald Glover is a uniquely talented person: by the time he created Because the Internet, he had a degree in Dramatic Writing, a lengthy music career, and experience with comedy writing and acting. I mention that not to discourage the rest of us from attempting the feat of multi-faceted worldbuilding, but the opposite:
Imagine to what new heights we could take our stories if we trained in multiple crafts?
Ample opportunities for collaboration
Even with all that talent, Donald Glover didn’t build the world of Because the Internet all by himself. Sure, he was the mastermind behind it all, but it took a village of people to bring his vision to life in such a grand, multidimensional fashion.
He worked with illustrator Sam Spratt to create an epic movie poster; and even though the movie was never made, Spratt’s drawing prowess makes it feel as if it exists. Hiro Murai, a Grammy-award-winning filmmaker, partnered with Glover to make Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. And the graphic designer Brian Roettinger conceptualized The Boy’s Room.
Expanding beyond his role as a musician, Donald Glover collaborated with the best creative minds in other artistic disciplines in order to more fully realize the non-musical elements of the story.
As for the album itself, he rented out an NBA player’s mansion and housed himself, friends, guest vocalists, and producers to record most of the album. That’s WFH on another level 😆.
An enthralling adventure for consumers
Having already listened to the album Because the Internet, I was shook upon discovering that there was a screenplay too. And a short film. If I was able to attend the tour or live performances, I think I would have cried. There’s no greater feeling after finishing a work of art than discovering that there’s more.
When the creator builds a comprehensive, immersive world, the consumer is rewarded with a compelling adventure that feels never-ending in the best sort of way.
After I finished the Harry Potter series as a kid, I still had the movies. Once I finished the movies, I was amazed to find that the Pottermore website was full of extra lore. And then there’s the textbooks and screenplays which I still haven’t read yet. J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is massive and complex, thus it needs more than a novel series to fully express itself.
On a smaller scale, Because the Internet is the same way. No spoilers here, but the story tackles complicated, highly subjective themes like modern social life, young adulthood, and loneliness that are better explored experientially than presented as a thesis.
Glover knows that the best stories might take repeated exposure, multiple senses, and many years to be sufficiently absorbed into our psyches.
Speaking of, I should probably read that screenplay again.
I’ll leave you with this. In the same Tim Westwood interview mentioned earlier, Glover sums up his worldbuilding philosophy in one delicious metaphor:
“Trying to get people to just invest in the album is kind of like trying to make people pay for just the smell of your bakery.”
P.S. If you like thinking about worldbuilding, check out this piece I wrote on paracosms.