In 2011, a time when blog buzz reigns supreme, it’s not uncommon for an artist to go from relatively unknown to hashtag sensation in an astoundingly short space of time. This year alone, Kreayshawn, Odd Future (as a collective), Tyler the Creator, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and most recently, ASAP Rocky, have all joined the internet’s A-list from near obscurity, sweeping up major label deals and putting on worldwide sold-out shows in the process. Unique on that list is Childish Gambino, an artist new to the masses but with a face already to familiar millions across America; the absurdly monikered Gambino is the rap alias of comedian and actor Donald Glover (no relation), who stars as Troy Barnes in the irresistible US sitcom Community.
The actor-slash-musician tag is a heavy handicap; one which almost always provokes immediate skepticism that few artists successfully overcome. Lucky for Gambino then that his de-facto mainstream debut, Camp‘s lead single “Bonfire,” is a punchline laden rap tour-de-force that rewards repeat listening. The beat is anthemic; the lyrics almost all quotable and littered with brilliant double entendres and smart winking references. Debuting on radio less than two months ago, “Bonfire” made the world sit up and pay attention, in the process creating huge anticipation for the release of this new artist’s album.
“Bonfire” is outstanding and might be the album’s highlight. Gambino is capable of constructing exceptionally clever bars, and he does this frequently throughout Camp. It doesn’t always come off (women talk shit on men like all day, but it’s Pete Wentz, goes both ways is a pretty terrible lyric) but he gets it right enough that he remains impressive as on “You See Me,” another standout, where Gambino kills an imposing instrumental, even spraying double-time in the last verse and briefly channeling Eminem at the height on his powers.
LISTEN: Childish Gambino – “You See Me”
The album has some recurrent themes – Donald Glover likes Asian women, is enjoying but not entirely comfortable with the groupie-shaped trappings of his fame and he still bears the scars of being bullied as a child. The former two subjects crop up amusingly throughout the album but the latter, Gambino’s childhood and time spent as growing up as an outcast, is the album’s prevalent thread. You sympathise at first, but after a while, those lamentations begin to wear thin. His personal insecurities and experiences, unpleasant as they are, are often tempered with tales of middle-class hardship that occasionally suffer from a lack of perspective. On the album’s final track “That Power,” an otherwise strong-if-predictable ode to ‘haters,’ he demonstrates the album’s biggest flaw in one line – loving white dudes who call me white and then try to hate / when I wasn’t white enough to use your pool when I was eight. Racial undertones or not, whining about not being able to play in your neighbour’s swimming pool is far from endearing.
As with every new artist, comparisons to some of rap’s current elite have been freely forthcoming – most frequently, Lil’ Wayne, Drake and Kanye West. That these comparisons are valid is clear here – Gambino’s punchlines, voice and delivery occasionally mimic Wayne’s; he sings a lot, just like Drake; and much like an early Kanye West, he’s a witty rap overachiever, unashamedly uncool and unimpeded by his own limitations.
He’s a stronger-than-average singer and significantly better at the crooning than his Canadian counterpart. The album features a lot of singing, but aside from the interlude-length “Letter Home” (which is touching and not cloying – Aubrey, take note), it at no point dominates.
Much like West, who before becoming a master at product placement for obscure luxury brands was the quintessential middle-class rapper, Gambino has his fair share of painfully clumsy lyrics . They’re all over the album – in fact it almost seems that when he isn’t constructing a multi-layered moment of genius, he’s trying too hard, stretching and stumbling over a cringeworthy lyric.
LISTEN: Childish Gambino – “Letter Home”
A final note about the album’s last minutes. Camp ends with a spoken first-person narrative about a young Donald Glover’s experience at, presumably, the “camp” which inspired the album’s name. It’s a personal highlight, engaging, revealing and touching, delivered masterfully by the narrator. Glover is a great storyteller, and it would’ve been great to hear more of this on the album, perhaps in place of meaningless throwaway lines about being ostracised by his peers as a youth. This one crushingly honest story is relatable in a way that almost no other tale of woe on the album is.
In truth, whilst Camp will be Childish Gambino’s first flirtation with the mainstream as an artist, it’s far from his first project. He has a handful of mixtapes under his belt dating back to 2008, which demonstrate vastly increasingly quality in chronological order. It’s not that the earlier tracks are bad, it wasn’t until last year’s Culdesac that things got exciting. Earlier this year, he released a five-track free download (simply titled EP) – a tight, varied affair that showcased his wit, charisma and genuine promise. Finding a near-perfect balance between moments of razor-sharp humour (that’d be those years of writing jokes) and raw vulnerability, EP hinted that Donald Glover (you don’t have to call him Childish) might very soon mature into a great rapper and a formidable artist.
All of which makes this all the more puzzling an album. Based on the evidence offered here alone, Gambino is too frequently whining, irritatingly self-obsessed (in a genre where self-obsession is readily accepted and arguably a staple) and occasionally difficult to like. Donald Glover is hugely likeable – as a comedian, an actor and, for the most part, a rapper, but in offering a painfully honest window into his psyche, insecurities laid bare, Camp sometimes suffers from a crippling lack of perspective that threatens to undermine the ostentatious lyrical brilliance and moments of classy poignancy. EP was great because it balanced the vulnerability that kept it grounded with bravado and braggadocio that made the most of Glover’s wit. Camp fails to achieve greatness because this balance is missing.
Childish Gambino is one of a new breed of rapper. From very different backgrounds and with vastly different experiences to the ones that came before them, these rappers represent a perspective that, until at most a decade ago, was curiously marginalised in Hip Hop. Rap in 2011 is undoubtedly therapy for these new guys (see Tyler and Drake for proof), so we can only hope that Gambino, having laid bare the demons of his youth, can leave them behind and mature into the great artist he shows flashes of being here.