November 14, 2011 89 comments
Hop in your parents’ station wagon and take a trip to Camp on iTunes
I’ve got a bone to pick with writer, actor, comedian and rapper Donald Glover. Performing under the pseudonym Childish Gambino, Glover has carved somewhat of a niche in the indie hip-hop community with his brand of sub-pop, alternative rap. While his Culdesac mixtape, and last years’ EP, built a loyal fanbase for Gambino, I’ve never personally been completely sold on him as a musician. On Camp, CG’s first official release, Glover takes everything that gave him any semblance of sympathy and essentially swaps that for the cocky, womanizing, douche-nerd that turned me off in the first place.
“Freaks and Geeks”, the buzzworthy single from Glover’s previous mixtape was the first real example of Gambino’s technical ability on the mic. To be clear, the bone I have to pick has nothing to do with CG’s talent; he’s got the punchlines, the flows, the social commentary, granted, none of it comes together securely. Take “Bonfire”, or “Freaks and Geeks 2.0″, as I call it. It’s the perfect pacemaker for what’s to come, with its half time hi-hat, full band support, and background choir. The song seems destined for radio play, but the lyrics doom the appeal before it can even take off. Glover’s tendency to toss around trigger phrases (i.e. Casey Anthony, Human Centipede, etc.) apparently holds the same lyrical value to him as his conscious, introspective lines. And it proves, early, to be quite unsustainable.
Glover often has no message. And, not that a message is necessary for the enjoyment of his music, there can’t be so much emphasis on something that produces no substance. That something is his lyrics. Glover harps on and on, incessantly, about being “being lonely”, or “being hated on” or, quite often, “being the only black person doing _____”.
Here’s the thing: As a young, black male in America, I completely understand Gambino’s sarcastic quips about “real blacks” on “Backpackers”, or his mom having to “work two jobs” on “Outside”, or being called a “lame in seventh grade” by his black peers. Here’s the other thing: I GOT OVER IT! 12 years later I’m not obsessively penning bitter ballads about those mean black kids who called me an Oreo, or the girls who played me because I was a geek. And if I were going to write a song about that specific period in time, I’d hope to add a bit more perspective than simply “yeah, I’m better than you now”. It’s just, no pun intended, childish. In the worst way possible.
Gambino seems to exist for the sole purpose of shoving his success in the faces of everyone who’s wronged him. But, if you pull the scope back, he’s also a Comedy Central signed stand-up, writer and actor for the critically acclaimed sitcom Community, and a bit part movie actor. I’m not revoking his right to complain, or feel sad, or lonely, or discriminated against, but the music never reflects any of the world experience he claims (believably so, given his resume) to have acquired. Camp sounds as though it comes from the most shallow, bitter and, honestly, fragile part of Glover’s brain.
The album doesn’t provide much reconciliation in terms of its composition. It goes for triumphant most of the time, but for some reason, CG’s definition of triumphant is something akin to Radio Disney. “Firefly” features a hook sung by a woman who might as well be Demi Lovato (no fault of her own). And, when it’s not a former Movie Surfer delivering the chorus, it’s Glover himself trying to stretch his voice into something that resembles a more nasally, sharp-toned Drake. Sometimes it works, like on “All the Shine”, where he’s not forced to reach outside of his range. Other times, he’s either out of key (“L.E.S.”), overcompensating for a dry melody (“Hold You Down”), or just plain weak in delivery (“Heartbeat”).
When it’s not his singing voice, it’s his rapping voice that hurts him. Gambino’s cadence slips into a Kanye-esque groan when he really wants to emphasize a line, like on the inexplicable call to Asian girls, “You See Me”: “Not my fault, man, these ladies love me / She’s an overachiever cause all she do is succeed [suck seed]“. Now, that’s not a tragedy of a line, but the extra effort he puts into this (or any) silly turn of phrase is just unnecessary. It’s almost insulting to the intelligence of the listener. As if we couldn’t POSSIBLY get his weightless references to Ninja Turtles, or “blerds”, or Living Single; the guy is a walking pop culture reference. But, that doesn’t equal skill.
Glover has the mindset to make truly compelling lyrics, but he vehemently chooses not to. On “All the Shine”, Gambino remarks:
“I’m a role model, I am not these other guys
I rap about my dick and talk about what girls is fly
I know it’s dumb, that’s the fucking reason I’m doing it
So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid shit?
Or is it real shit?
‘Cause sometimes that stupid shit is real shit”
Yes, Donald, sometimes that “stupid shit” is real shit. But, that “stupid shit” isn’t a sometimes occasion here. It’s an all 13 tracks occasion; sprinkled with orchestra accents, nerd culture, and one protagonist with multiple personalities. Sadly, Camp can’t seem to elevate any one of those personalities above “stupid shit”.
Childish Gambino – All the Shine Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Backpackers Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Bonfire Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Fire Fly Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Heartbeat Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Hold You Down Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Kids Lyrics
Childish Gambino – L.E.S. Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Letter Home Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Outside Lyrics
Childish Gambino – Sunrise Lyrics
Childish Gambino – That Power Lyrics
Childish Gambino – You See Me Lyrics