It’s almost impossible to find an angle on Donald Glover that hasn’t already been covered w/r/t his seemingly boundless, ironic-yet-enthusiastic public persona. Ever since Derrick Comedy’s 2006 “Bro-Rape” video, Glover has been exploding via a number of different mediums. To date, he has worked as a writer for both The Daily Show and 30 Rock, appeared as Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, and had his own special on Comedy Central in 2010. Impressive? Understatement. Dude is more driven than James Franco’s publicist at a Red Bull convention.
The latest addition to the brief and wondrous rise of Donald Glover is the emergence of his career as an MC under the moniker Childish Gambino (which comes from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator that can be found either here or here), and just like his career as a writer-cum-actor-cum-comedian, Childish Gambino has made quick work of getting known. His first album, Sick Boi, dropped in 2008; his second,Poindexter, appeared in 2009; 2010 saw the arrival of two mix tapes, I Am Just A Rapper and I Am Just A Rapper 2, as well as a third album, entitled Culdsesac.
CAMP, Childish Gambino’s fourth album, was commercially released on November 15th. Akin to other aspects of Donald Glover’s métier, it covers every possible slant by utilizing transparent thinking, multiple points-of-view, and an incredibly charming sense of hyperactive work ethic. It’s a study in the fine art of counter-pointing: hot and cold, carelessly ironic and achingly sincere, deadly serious in one moment while laughing hysterically in the next. The image that comes to mind is that of Glover giving us the thumbs-up sign and while extending his middle finger on the same hand, as if to say “I don’t give a flying ****, but isn’t this so great?!?”
And the thing is? He’s not wrong. CAMP is pretty great, if not inconsistent. It’s full of hand claps, chants, creeping beats, four-part harmonies, violin solos, and funky piano breaks that evaporate in bursts of extremely clever and well-delivered lyrics. With each track, you get the feeling that you’re bearing witness to the evolution of an MC, and it’s this kind of see-through growth that makes CAMP so accessible. It’s also one of the album’s biggest problems, as Gambino spends so much time acknowledging his potential shortcomings as both an MC and a person, it takes all the piss out of the first eight tracks.
Sure, the beats are tight and his rhymes are sharp, comprehensible and deft, but the anxiety, the self-awareness that fuels the majority of Gambino’s lyrics, is nearly crippling. Take the fourth track, “All The Shine”, which begins with a simple snare, a skulking loop that builds, peaks; suddenly Gambino is flowing and it’s all good until you start listening to what he’s saying: “I rap about my dick and talk about why girls is fly / I know it’s dumb, that’s the fucking reason that I’m doing it / Why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid shit?” Sadly, Gambino’s great strength, stellar musical composition and intelligence, devolves into reactionary, defensive, self-conscious awfulness once you start listening to the lyrics,
It’s nothing new that the best defense in the biz is to diss yourself before anyone else gets the opportunity to. That being true, it’s not entirely fair to rip on Gambino for his sense of hyper-translucent-self-awareness. But it is fair, just because his songs are so interesting, so vibrant, so full of something good, to say that Childish Gambino should do himself a solid and get his anxiety in check. “Sometimes I feel like I ain’t supposed to be here,” he raps on the second verse of “All The Shine,” “Sometimes I wake up and I don’t want to be here.” It’s almost as if Gambino doesn’t actually believe that he’s a rapper, or that he’s famous and that people know his name; and it’s in the lines that belie this kind of doubt that he alienates his audience. Who would want to listen to me, he seems to say, and truth is, if that’s how he really feels...I have no idea.
It goes on like this for eight solid tracks, and just when you’re about to write him off as the second coming of Aubrey Graham, another actor-cum-rapper-cum-croissant, Childish Gambino finds his voice. Track number 9, “Hold You Down”, comes out of nowhere with Gambino singing at full volume (the opposite of another track, “Letter Home”, which feels diluted and unfinished) atop a swelling beat and suddenly he’s throwing it all on the table: “Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough / We all look the same to cops, ain’t that good enough? / The black experience is blackened serious / Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us.”
With “Hold You Down”, Childish Gambino proves that he’s more than what he fears, stepping outside himself, finding new depths and destroying the beat, leaving nothing for the rest of us but memories and thoughts and wonderings why. It speaks truths, volumes, Gil Scott-Herons about racisms both subtle and overt: “We warriors, we all need senseis / Change everything we’ve done so far / I don’t mean makin’ B.E.T.T.E.R. / I mean just the way that we see each other / I won’t sop until they say ‘James Franco is the white Donald Glover.’”
The next four songs spin with the force and smoothness of a young Grandmaster, using tricks like xylophones and wickedly simple beats to write sections that feel both nostalgic and somehow futuristic. He goes deep on his fetish for Asian girls, hilariously samples Kanye’s cadence, rolls out the references to Francois Truffaut, and finally, with “That Power”, works his way into a confessional monologue involving summer camp, a school bus, girls - one in particular - and the regretful use of the word ‘destiny’. “I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit. But that's not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven't.”
It’s a ballsy move, ending the album with only his speaking voice as the rest of the world fades away, but it’s raw, it hurts, it’s honest, and you just can’t help but be won over by it. At the end of the day, CAMP is solid work of sound. It isn’t perfect, it doesn’t always feel like the most original, innovative, or confident musical stylings, but it is, for better or for worse, a product of the force of nature that is Donald Glover. And no matter how hard he might try, or how many albums Childish Gambino puts out in the years to come, Donald Glover is, and always will be, Donald Glover. And that’s awesome, because, to paraphrase something that Cary Grant once said: Everybody wants to be Donald Glover. Even Donald Glover wants to be Donald Glover. If you don't believe me, just ask James Franco.