On Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West released a sprawling, flawed attempt at an epic that would—in theory—fulfill both their desires to make stadium-filling hip-hop that spoke about the black experience in America in 2011, while still managing to get in the occasional bar about how awesome/not awesome it was to be Kanye West and Jay-Z. While Watch the Throne was fun at times, be honest—there aren’t more than one or two tracks from that album you still listen to on even a weekly basis. It ended up ringing false with both artists, and proved largely forgettable. So how is it that a 27-year-old sitcom star possibly best known for videos about bros who rape other bros may have succeeded where Jay and ‘Ye failed?
For those of you who’ve never been on YouTube or waste their lives watching The Big Bang Theory on Thursdays at 8 (Seriously … stop that), Donald Glover started out in comedy in a very similar manner to how he began in hip-hop: slowly working his way from non-traditional formats (posting sketches with Derrick Comedy on YouTube: releasing EPs for free through his website) to now finding himself on the edge of stardom—if not the precipice of breaking out—and at least a solid audience and credibility with the indie crowd (Community barely hits four million viewers on NBC, but garners massive critical acclaim; Camp is being released on the more traditional, but still independent label Glassnote). With Camp, his debut physical release under rap moniker Childish Gambino, Glover makes the kind of Big Hip-Hop Statement that his sitcom made with its paintball episode (and I promise this is the last Community reference). This is a talented young man with a desire to take his music in any direction it can possibly go.
Lyrically, Gambino has always produced solid, quotable lines. After all, he was a writer before he got into acting (as many of his old songs will inform you, he won an Emmy for writing on 30 Rock) and still produces some of the best verses you’ll hear in hip-hop this year. However, whereas EPs like Culdesac and Be Alone occasionally got bogged down in hashtag rap and trying to convince people he’s actually a rapper, Camp, for the most part, abandons that format, and it’s telling. “Backpackers”, the album’s lone song that succumbs to that outdated style of rap, is the worst song on the album. This time around, Childish Gambino has truly fulfilled his desire to provide listeners with something real. Elements of actual story-telling and emotional outpouring fill Camp with a lifeblood that other mainstream rap records just haven’t had this year.
The album begins with its mission statement, “Outside”, a song both bigger in scale and somehow more intimate than most anything else hip-hop has seen this year. Gambino delivers heartbreak through couplets about his parents struggling just to move up to the projects (“that sound fancy to me”, he deadpans) before delivering a message to his cousin – and perhaps the entire black community—to not allow society to define who they are. The genius of Glover is his ability to comment on the experience of his own personal struggle, or the struggle of young, nerdy, middle-class African American kids he seeks to entertain, while at no point feeling exclusive. For every line about growing up poor, there’s another about growing up as an outsider at “that white school.” Camp is not a record for black kids or white kids or Asian girls (though there’s a lot on this album for all of you, especially the latter)—it is an album for the underdog.
One of the criticisms often levied against Childish Gambino are those of sexism, including a lengthy critique of Glover’s “Woman Problem” on Tumblr!!http://chocolatewastedberries.tumblr.com/post/6114155042/rape-is-hilarious-donald-glover-edition!!. While there are still some rough lines on Camp that are difficult to go to bat for (“You better shut your mouth/before I fuck it”, he responds to those who think they’re “allowed to say what all his raps are about”) he changes up his style on Camp by upping the stakes and spreading the loathing around: Throughout all of the album, we’re all kind of awful: men, women, and more than anyone, himself. A large part of the record deals with the emotion and anger that can come from young love gone bad. The fact is, people jump really easily into writing things off as misogynistic when it’s actually just about intense emotion and shouldn’t be applied logically. In the end, Gambino is caught up in the moment, and never turns the loathing harder on anyone other than himself.
Musically, however, is where Gambino improves tenfold. Ludwig Goransson’s production has taken Glover from largely laptop rap—or, even worse, spitting over whatever indie buzz band has Pitchfork’s attention at the moment—to a full band production combining sounds as diverse as ‘90s hip-hop and R&B, to modern techno and dubstep on the record’s best song, “Heartbeat”. The album is a juxtaposition of mostly depressing, self-loathing rap mixed with some of the most enjoyable post-Graduation music.
In the end, Childish Gambino has produced a grand statement with Camp. The question of if the masses will hear it becomes the only question. This album is undoubtedly one of the best records of any genre to come out in 2011, and finally sets Donald Glover up as a “serious” rapper. It’s an album even Abed might be able to get emotional over (Sorry, I lied).