New Music Review: Childish Gambino; ‘Camp’ (LISTEN)
Childish Gambino’s first commercial album, Camp, is out today. Gambino has produced three albums in the past, all available for free on his website. With Camp, however, Gambino is attempting to bring his sound past his extremely enthusiastic fanbase to mainstream hip-hop. He may very well succeed.
In this album, CG is trying on a different persona in each track — misogynist boor, insecure young professional, crass playboy, jilted lover. Of course, Childish Gambino is himself a persona of Donald Glover, the jack-of-all-trades co-star from NBC’s “Community” and former writer for “The Daily Show” and “30 Rock.” Glover’s character on “Community,” Troy Barnes, is mild-mannered, compassionate, goofy, and adorably innocent. Gambino, by comparison, is by turns offensively vulgar, affectedly “gangsta,” nerdy and naughty, insecure and swaggering in the same breath.
It’s unclear if there is a line between Donald Glover and the performer that is Childish Gambino; to put it another way, it’s unclear if Childish Gambino is telling the truth. But that performance of self is the point of this album. Childish Gambino is a pastiche of selves, a fractured identity. That quality stems from kneejerk defensiveness, deep ambiguity towards himself, and sharp satire, depending on the song. Though I didn’t like every version of CG that I heard on the album, at the end I couldn’t deny that he was being honest, even if he wasn’t always telling the truth. As he puts it in the last track, “I am what I am: everything I wanna be.” (Sounds a bit like “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes,” doesn’t it?)
All of this aside, let one thing be clear: Childish Gambino writes incredible rhymes. Even if a lot of them are about blowjobs. There are so many double entendres, homophonic allusions, and nerdy references packed into these rhymes I needed liner notes just to keep up.
“Bonfire,” the album’s first single, presents the swaggering CG that is the embodiment of our worst expectations for black rappers — his lyrics weave through drugs, objectification of women (especially Asian ones!), and materialism in quick succession. The lyrics are deplorable, but you can’t deny the beat. The only other song on the album that matches this one for pure offensiveness is “You See Me,” which expands on the apparently endless charms of Asian women and having a penis.
When he’s not rapping about women, he’s rapping about how other people don’t take him seriously as a rapper — whether those people are other black rappers, white people, the music industry, or, well, women. “Backpackers” is one of these (“campers” stay and appreciate Camp, Gambino’s album; “backpackers” leave), “Sunrise” is another (with a catchier beat). “Firefly” is the only song on the album in which Childish Gambino expresses satisfaction with the success he’s achieved without coming off like a total jackass.
But for all the swagger, there is a surprisingly equal amount of sensitivity. The other songs on the album, like “Outside,” the album’s opener, treat with his complicated relationship to blackness, speaking on his history and his family’s struggles to survive. “Outside” is directed at his cousin, and has an affecting choral hook that appealed to me. “Hold you Down” is another song discussing his relationship to his race and success with verbal dexterity and wit. And “All the Shine” belies his earlier misogynistic lyrics, revealing a far less self-assured ladies’ man.
In other words, there’s a little bit of CG for everyone. If you don’t like him in “Bonfire,” your heart will go out to him in “All the Shine.” Or vice versa. You can almost hear him shrug — whatever.
“Heartbeat” and “LES” were my favorite raps on the album, probably because I liked the CG presented the best. “Heartbeat” is about CG having an affair with a woman in a relationship; it has a sick beat and some of my favorite (extremely explicit) lyrics. “So we fuck till we come to conclusions,” he raps, and then later, about her boyfriend, “But he just a fake nigga who blog in all caps.” “LES” is a candid perspective on the nightlife of the Lower East Side. “Watchin’ lames handle they fame / They bang any broad with bangs / In a band with an animal name.” I could have done without the schmaltzy vibe of “Kids.”
The crowning glory of Camp is the last song, “That Power,” that ties together many of the jumbled conclusions of the earlier songs into a satisfying prose poem outro. I don’t want to ruin it for you. You should hear it at the end of the album for yourself. It’s worth the posturing and melodrama of Childish Gambino’s earlier selves. I think in the last track, we may actually get Donald Glover.
Or maybe that’s just what he wants us to think.
Listen to Camp here at NPR.
(Photo courtesy WireImage.)
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