From LL Cool J to Ludacris to whoever that guy was who played Biggie in Notorious, we’ve seen a lot of Raptors (rappers turned actors), but we’ve never seen an Appter (actor turned rapper), or at least we hadn’t before Childish Gambino. I have to admit, though, that while the Appter label is a convenient and slightly amusing storyline, the truth is far more complicated. Donald Glover has both been acting as Donald Glover, (most prominently on NBC’s sadly cancelled Community), writing as Donald Glover (most prominently for NBC’s definitely-not-cancelled 30 Rock), performing stand up …
DJBooth Album Review
All rappers claim they hate to be compared to others, as if they developed their music in a vacuum, completely unaffected and uninfluenced, but sometimes the comparisons just fit. Case in point; Camp and Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout. We can get the “Gambino’s not as dynamic a producer or as visionary an artist” disclaimer out of the way early, but beyond that: both albums are entirely self-produced, both help introduce a new Black voice to a genre that likes to dictate what Black voices should sound like (and rap about), and most importantly, both are excellent autobiographical albums. By showing us his dreams and his failures, his social and philosophical beliefs alongside an abundance of dick jokes, listeners leave Camp feeling like they truly know Gambino. That’s not a feeling every rapper aspires to create – Jay’s intentionally never let us that close – but it’s one that a young Kanye West captured perfectly in 2004, and Donald Glover has echoed in 2011.
Any thought that Camp will be a “comedy rap” album is immediately crushed by Outside, an intensely cinematically dark track that throws us into Donald’s lifelong struggle to survive on the periphery of social acceptance. If that sounds heavy it is because it is. It’s a blueprint he follows again on the layered All The Shine, which showcases Gambino’s best production work, and again on the intense Hold You Down, which also pulls double duty as the album’s mission statement: “They only see you how they want to see you / until you make them see you some other way.” It’s this ability to alternate Hold You Down’s anger with the romantic impulses on Heartbeat, the genuine hurt of L.E.S. with more sparkling pop sensibilities of Sunrise and Fire Fly, that truly make Gambino stand out. Crucially, these changes don’t sound like a “versatile” rapper showcasing his versatility. It sounds like a complicated person showing us his complications.
At the risk of sounding like a kung-fu movie, Gambino’s strength is also his weakness. As a TV writer and a comedian he’s naturally focused on punchlines and creating moments, which at his best is enormously entertaining and at the worst forced. They’re no longer songs, they’re collection of jokes told over a beat. Break out banger Bonfire actually contains both. If you didn’t laugh out loud at “Eatin’ Oreos like these white girls that blow me” you’re either incapable of laughter or didn’t don’t get it, but by far the song’s most powerful section is: “Yeah, they say they want the realness, rap about my real life / Told me I should just quit: “first of all, you talk white!” Like a good stand up routine the punchlines are the most powerful when told in context, and as guilty pleasure addictive as You See Me’s beat is, I feel like I can hear Gambino flipping through his rhymebook, looking for the best lines to compile into a verse. Still, on a song like You See Me entertainment value is priority number one. It’s when Gambino falls in love with a good line at the expense of the song, like the shock value “Something crazy, an Asian, Virginia Tech” on the otherwise powerful and purposeful Backpackers. Good rappers spit nice lines, great rappers know when not to.
Becoming enamored with your own superb writing is what they call a “good problem,” and one Gambino should solve as he gains the confidence to stop hiding behind clever lines. In fact, one of Camp’s best tracks is closing number That Power, a nearly eight minute track that truly captivated when Glover stops rapping and simply tells a story. There aren’t many rappers brave enough (aka ballsy enough) to end their album rap free and talking about themselves. Actually, I can only think of one other rapper. Kanye West. College Dropout. Last Call.
Listen to More: Childish Gambino Written by Nathan S.
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