It came from space, without warning.
Nearly two years after Donald Glover completely blacked out his internet presence just because, the Atlien returned with a single tweet. That tweet contained a single link. That single link opened a single app, mysteriously titled Pharos, which launched us zooming through space with a countdown clock as our only companion and clue. Our destination was barely visible but deceptively growing closer, like the edge of land from miles out into the ocean.
We assumed it signalled the impending arrival of an album, which showed just how limited the horizon of our vision was. We were focused on a planet while Glover was building a universe. On touchdown we received no album, no song, not even snippet, Instead we were greeted with a festival announcement, set to take place in the Joshua Tree desert.
This past weekend that festival took place, and now that the people have experienced his alternative universe and returned to their far more dreary reality, it’s time to declare Glover the most innovative popular artist of his generation. Scratch that. Expand. At this exact moment, he’s the most innovative popular artist of any generation.
By all accounts Kanye’s current Saint Pablo tour is an event every bit as grand as the man-god who designed it. But for all his visionary brilliance, Kanye is much more of an expander than an inventor. Be it Jay Z, Versace or Zuckerberg, he’s always depended on a powerful patron. His music has always been released through major labels and major streaming services, his shoes sold through global corporations, his concerts performed in established venues. From music and fashion and beyond, his genius lays less in breaking truly new ground and more in trespassing on property designed to keep him out, opening a path for followers (including Glover) in the process.
Far more than Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly as a constantly evolving album, each new video and live performance serving both as an unofficial B-side album and a lens which influenced how we viewed the original work. Frank Ocean’s Endless/Blonde/Boys Don’t Cry release was inspired, Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day festival is extraordinary, Thom Yorke and Radiohead are always a lightyear or two ahead of the curve, the list goes on. They all deserve exponential applause, but they’re also all either paying rent to BudAppleMusicLight landlords or at the current moment are more in the background than centerstage.
But no one’s built their own house, simultaneously existed on so many planes and seamlessly bridged the gap between IRL and URL as completely as Glover.
Technology brought the people to Pharos and the app-as-ticket idea solved the scalping and overcrowding problems that have plagued Dollar & a Dream and Magnificent Coloring Day, but after entering Pharos that technology had to be abandoned at the gates.
Phones were confiscated, locked, and the entire site lacked internet access, which in 2016 is a bigger shock to the system than actual fasting, and perhaps carries the same potential for enlightenment.
The inside of Pharos was similarly both set apart and grounded as episodes of Atlanta, Glover’s new show, played throughout and the man himself performed sets backed by a live band that were are sonically daring as they were visually triumphant, all with nary a corporate logo to be seen. This was Glover’s own Burning Man, a synthesis of his personal, creative and cultural range contained with a few square miles of desert sand.
Once again the attention now turns to waiting for a Pharos album, but the idea of an album still serving as a culmination now feels bizarrely old fashioned, hopping on a unicycle while already riding with Glover on his private jet. Pharos wasn’t a promotional event except to the extent that it promoted Glover’s vision of a world where he can create anything, anywhere, and bring together the like-minded under his dome.
Most of Donald Glover’s career, and perhaps his entire life, has been about navigating the whiplash-inducing transitions between the warm promise of dreams and the cold splash of reality. Living as a Black man in a world that will never let him forget he’s a Black man without letting race become the sum total of his humanity. Creating as a musician and an actor, a rapper and a singer, an independent artist and a network sitcom staffer, a comedian and an artist demanding of the most serious respect, a nerd and a Stone Mountain street navigator, a product of the internet age who’s also old enough to remember a time without it. Glover is a human ampersand.
Every generation believes it’s living in an age unlike any other, but world culture truly is moving through an unprecedentedly chaotic intersection, and Glover is currently the most reliable crossing guard we have. It’s oddly comforting to know at least one person seems to have figured it out how to close the gap between themselves and their digital projection, how to pursue every facet of themselves without becoming unrecognizably distorted and scattered.
The future is here. The future is now, and it looks exactly like Donald Glover.
[By Nathan Slavik, aka @RefinedHype]