-Renaissance man a present-day man who has acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field.
-Childish Gambino see above
Is there anyone at the moment that is having as much success in multiple entertainment genres as Donald Glover? Best known for his role as Troy Barnes in the hilarious, award-winning sitcom Community, Glover is also an accomplished writer, with credits on The Daily Show and 30 Rock, he is part of the sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy, a stand-up comedian, DJ, and has movie roles in the pipe-line. Glover even inspired a Twitter campaign from fans for him to be allowed to audition for the role of Spiderman in the upcoming re-boot The Amazing Spiderman, #donald4spiderman even gained support from Stan Lee.
And as if that wasn’t enough Glover also raps under the moniker Childish Gambino. Gambino isn’t a new invention, Glover has been releasing mixtapes and free albums under the Childish Gambino name for a few years now, but Camp is his first official label release on Glassnote Records. Glover is certainly a jack-of-all-trades, but the question is, is he a master of all or a master of none?
“And every black “you’re not black enough”/Is a white “you’re all the same.”“
Camp, much like Glover himself, is trying to be a lot of things, the songs vary from your typical braggadocious raps, slick RnB laments, self-aware story-telling, and Lil Wayne inspired punchline frenzies. If the album suffers from an identity crisis, then it’s only because Glover does himself. With the back-drop of a childhood summer camp, the recurring theme in Gambino’s lyrics is his disconnection from “black culture”, and his almost apologetic tone when referring to his escape from the ghetto in to American suburbia. “I am not a rapper, I am just different,” was his motto in previous releases, and that ideology continues throughout Camp.
The opening track “Outside” begins the album on an orchestral vibe, the beat is very Kanye West, in fact it reminds me of the opening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it has that big, anthemic feel. Gambino tackles the very nature of self-identity, as he raps about his parents struggle to move him out of the ghetto, and his awkward relationship with his cousin, who has clearly taken a different path in life. It’s a deeply personal song, with a catchy, around-the-camp-fire sing-along chorus, and provides a strong start to the album.
“My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es.”
Now, it’s a shame for an album to go off course as early as the second track, but “Fire Fly” just doesn’t work for me. It has a chilled out, vintage funk sound, and it would have been perfectly fine as a mixtape track, but as the second song on your debut album it needs to be a lot stronger, and it comes off as a bit of a nothing track. Thankfully, in the age of iTunes, you can pretty much make up your own track-listing, so I’ve personally chosen to swap “Fire Fly” for “Freaks and Geeks”, the popular track from Gambino’s EP released earlier this year.
“Bonfire” comes next and is the albums lead single, now this is what I mean about coming strong. This is a thumping, grimy, bass lead track, very Kanye West “Power”, I often have to hold my self back from singing “I’m living in that 21st century…”, before Gambino starts his first verse. Gambino shows off his skills as a witty punch-line artist, “I made the beat retarded, so I’m calling it a slow-jam,” and he proves he has the flow of a true hip-hop pro, this isn’t no Will Smith stuff (I admittedly and unapologetically own two Will Smith albums, and not even the semi-good ones!).
“Is there room in the game for a lame who rhymes? Who wears short-shorts and makes jokes sometimes?”
“All The Shine” is another big track, with its sweeping strings and powerful chorus, Gambino raps about his rise to fame, how he fits (or doesn’t fit) in to the rap game and how others perceive him, including his own Mother. “What’s the point of rap if you can’t be yourself, huh?”. Gambino takes on that mantra, he is unapologetically nerdy, the album is littered with obscure references from Invader Zim to Sufjan Stevens, and taps in to a niche market of hip hop outsiders in both black and white culture.
“Letter Home” demonstrates Gambino’s vocal ability, yes, he can sing too, and has a much wider vocal range than Drake, another comparison artist, who also has an album out this week. It certainly isn’t my favourite track on the album, but it is short enough to not bother me, and acts more as an interlude than a complete song.
“Change my ID for the cops, it’s not enough yet. Black male in short-shorts, I’m double suspect.”
“Heartbeat” continues the albums RnB turn but with an electronica edge, with a massive, pulsating synth bass, accompanied by a classical piano. This could easily be a big club track, if Gambino wanted it to be. It isn’t covering any new ground lyrically, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and is proof of Gambino’s improving production skills.
“Backpackers” is definitely an album stand-out, a bouncy, horn-infused beat with Gambino going hard at his detractors. It’s another sign of Donald Glover’s identity crisis, as he tries to distance himself from the “backpacker rapper” label, yet when he’s referencing trigonometry and Radiohead he must realise that he’s boxing himself in, unless the entire thing is tongue-in-cheek, which judging by the chorus it very well may be.
“Culture shocks at barber shops because I ain’t hood enough. We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?”
More addictive strings sway through “L.E.S”, without a doubt proving that Gambino is right up there with J.Cole in the rapper/producer market. Gambino raps about wanting to hook up with a bad girl for some dirty bathroom action in the Lower East Side. Again, much like “Heartbeat”, this isn’t the most lyrically provoking track on the album, but it’s crisp production will have you coming back.
“Hold You Down”, a piano lead track with a clap along drum pattern, returns to the thematic strand of the album: “black culture”, identity, and stereotypes. Gambino raps about how he feels ostracised from certain parts of the black community, judged unfairly because he broke away from stereotype and can’t relate to the “hood”. But he is conflicted because he doesn’t fit in with “white culture” either, “Cause God knows what these white kids saying/Dude, you’re not not racist because The Wire’s in your Netflix queue - subtle racism.” There is a fear that it borders on becoming a little whiny, especially when compared to many topics covered throughout hip hop by those “hood” rappers Gambino talks about, but it’s what makes Donald Glover such a complex person.
“I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.”
“Kids (Keep Up)” is another chilled out beat, the backing xylophone making it almost nursery rhyme like, but it works for me much more than “Fire Fly”, Gambino’s vocals work well on the hook, and he raps about how his sudden fame has brought him success with women who previously didn’t look twice. It’s the braggadocio side of Gambino shining through, some may argue it takes away from his vulnerability shown in previous tracks, but I believe it makes Gambino and in turn Donald Glover a fully-fleshed, three-dimensional human being.
“You See Me” goes hard, and is the start of the barrage of greatness that the last three tracks provide. The production is minimal but loud, interspersed with pounding horns, this is Gambino’s tribute song to Asian girls, which those familiar with his previous work will know he has a fascination/obsession with, “Fuck these white girls, I need some variation. Especially if she very Asian.” There is a definite Watch The Throne influence here, it’s childlike glee reminds me of Jay and Ye’s “Niggas In Paris.” The highlight of the track however is Gambino’s last verse, his flow speeds up and its as if he is channeling late 90s Eminem.
“My shit be Jackson, Jordan, Bolton, Keaten, Tyson: 5 Mikes.”
“Sunrise” continues the momentum of “You See Me” with loud synths, big drums, and a fierce Gambino slowly starting to accept his place in hip hop, and happily carving out his own niche. “To my white dudes it’s a concert/To my black nerds this is church.” His self-awareness shines through, as he tries to put his identity issues to the side, and make music for those outsiders, “Something for these black kids to call their own/So when you’re skating in your drive-way, you’re not alone.”
“That Power” is again Kanye West in tone, but Gambino does it so well at this point you just accept it. Here he is finally letting go of his insecurities, “I am what I am, everything I want to be,” and forgetting his “haters”. It’s the outro of the track however that hits home the hardest, Gambino delivers a spoken word recollection of his bus trip home from summer camp in which he opened his heart up to a girl about how much he liked her, only to be abandoned and then mocked and laughed at by her and her friends. It’s not a bitter story, it is just a story about childhood and insecurity, and that insecurity can continue in to adult life, as demonstrated throughout Camp, “I got on the bus a boy, and I never got off the bus, I still haven’t. It’s brilliantly told, and I would have liked to hear a couple more of these monologues throughout the album.
Camp is an impressively produced, addictive album about a boy living in a man’s world, still riddled with insecurities and identity issues, which simultaneously act as flaws and positives for the album as a whole. There are a couple of misses along the way, perhaps an over reliance on dick jokes, and a conflicted sense of environment. The influences from contemporaries such as Kanye West, Drake and Lil Wayne are obvious, but Childish Gambino adopts their traits with a confidence and an unabashed flourish. His witticisms and lyrical ability are cleverer than Wayne’s, his singing is better than Drake’s, and his knack for self-aware, soul-searching story-telling is at least comparable with Kanye’s.
Donald Glover is without doubt one of the most impressive young talents in the world of entertainment, a super talented actor and comedian, and as his debut album proves, an equally gifted musician and rapper. NBC may have just dropped Community from the mid-season schedules, but I can assure you, nobody is dropping Childish Gambino.
by Martin Holmes