I’m pretty sure this is the first hip-hop album to name check Terry Gross. On Camp, Childish Gambino also raps about NASDAQ, skinny ties, boat shoes, trigonometry, ToeJam & Earl, Invader Zim and Carmen Sandiego. That might all seem a little out of place until you realize that Childish Gambino is the stage name of Donald Glover, the 28-year-old actor and stand-up comedian best known for his work on NBC’s Community. (Glover got the moniker from the “Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator” website.) The album’s nerdy references and killer, clever wordplay (“Made a beat and murdered it / Casey Anthony”) is befitting of someone with enough verbal chops to get hired as a writer on 30 Rock right out of college.
Though Glover is more famous for his acting, Childish Gambino is not a vanity project — he has been self-releasing free albums and mixtapes online for years; Camp is just the first on a proper label. Glover openly acknowledges that he makes an unlikely hip-hop artist: He’s from suburban Atlanta. He studied theater at NYU. Hell, Tina Fey gave him his first job. “You’re not going to hear me rapping about selling drugs or getting shot,” says Glover, “My story is not 50 Cent’s.” In other words, he doesn’t rap about the projects, he raps about feeling guilty for not being from the projects. The album’s opener “Outside,” is a poignant tale about how Glover’s parents worked multiple jobs so they could move to a better neighborhood, but now he worries that he’s not considered black because he can’t talk “hood.” Similar thoughts crop up in other songs: “What’s this n—– doing? Rap is for real blacks” and “Me and hip-hop, that black Sid and Nancy.”
But Glover should be thankful for that chip on his shoulder; the nagging feeling that he wasn’t good enough seems to have given him a desire to strive for authenticity in his music. He doesn’t use AutoTune. He doesn’t rely on guest rappers to boost his cred. And when he performs live, he uses an actual band instead of the pre-recorded backing tracks that so many pop and hip-hop artists have come to rely on. But most impressively, Glover has developed the ability to seamlessly weave traditional forms of rap with rock and pop hooks to create a catchy, danceable sound very much akin to that of Kanye West. “Heartbeat” features an electro house beat and a sung refrain that you’ll be humming for days.
His only weakness — and this befalls many male rappers, but it’s just more noticeable here because you don’t expect it coming from the sensitive guy on Community — is that he spends an awful lot of time bragging about all of the girls he’s banged. Sometimes his jokes are funny (“My d— is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over-Es”) but other times, it just seems like Glover’s trying to make up for, well, “all the f—s I missed in high school,” as he puts it in his song “All The Shine.”
Ultimately, Camp is a skillful album created by a conflicted man. Sometimes he is witty like on his single “Bonfire,” an upbeat, bass-heavy number that houses most of the cultural references I mentioned earlier. Sometimes he is angry, like on “Kids,” when he makes a woman take Plan B in front of him so he knows she won’t trick him into getting her pregnant. And other times he is emotionally fragile, like on the album’s outro “That Power,” in which he delivers a spoken-word story about the time he told a girl he liked her liked her on the way home from summer camp — a story so detailed that he even mentions how the rubber band made a crease in the girl’s still wet hair — only to be rejected and laughed at. But if Camp doesn’t have a motif maybe that’s because Donald Glover doesn’t have one either. He acts, he writes, he still does stand-up, and yes, he also raps. Some people can’t be put into a box that easily.
See the video for Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire” below. It contains explicit language.
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