You probably know him as Troy Barnes from NBC’s hit show “Community.” And if you don’t, then you should. Donald Glover (no relation to Danny) is a hilarious and fantastic actor. Which is why I was initially hesitant when I heard that he also rapped. How many times are actors/musicians/athletes able to shine when they cross over into another form of entertainment? Shaq and Allen Iverson’s rap albums were terrible. Some people like Bon Jovi’s acting, but I think he’s horrible. Ludacris was great in “Crash” but that’s the exception to the rule.
So it’s no surprise that I was reluctant to accept Childish Gambino – a name he came up with by Wu-Tanging his name (mine would be Officer Stinkah) – as a legitimate rapper. But then I first listened to his EP which he released earlier this year and was blown away. Is it polished? No. Is it crude? Very much so. Is he sometimes self-deprecating to the point where it becomes uncomfortable? Sure. But he was really good. His lyrics were potent and critical of himself and others. And his beats were fantastic for someone who was self-producing a mixtape on his laptop. And so I was hooked, and patiently awaited the release of his full-length album.
Well, here it is.
Camp is fantastic. There are times when it’s overproduced. And there are times when it sounds like he was just trying to be Kanye West. But lyrically it’s wonderful. The album starts off with Mr. Glover trying to prove his “hood” legitimacy. “He’s saving up so we can get our own place/ in the projects, that sounds fancy to me,” Glover sings in the opening track – “Outside.” “Gun pulled in her face, she still made dinner.” Already on the defensive, Childish opens the album by trying to prove that he came from the same projects that everyone else did. Sure, he was able to attend and graduate from NYU, but his roots – possibly important for his rapper cred, and certainly important to him – are presented here in plain sight. It’s hard to tell if he’s mocking the concept of rap-cred or if he’s actually trying to prove himself. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both. “Firefly” continues as he describes his childhood and being poor and unable to go to concerts. He then veers into one of his other favorite topics – that he’s black and a rapper, but accused of being ‘white’ – “the only black guy at a Sufjan concert.”
Gambino begins his tirade in full force during “Hold You Down.” He talks about being poor and wanting a nice jacket, but since his mom couldn’t afford so he “hit the office stole some Tommy Hill from lost and found.” He attacks the stereotypes (“White kids get to wear whatever hat they want. When it comes to black kids, one size fits all.”), lashes out at white people who think that their love of black culture makes them less racist (“You’re not not racist because The Wire’s in your Netflix queue.”), and fights back against people saying he’s not black enough (“He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad.”). But the true gem of the track is when he tells us “I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.” Is he kidding? Is he making fun of stereotypes? Is he mocking himself and the fact that people care about stupid things? Is he post-race and looking back at the stupidity of these arguments?
And then he goes back and compares himself to the godfathers of rap. “Rap’s stepfather, yeah, you hate me but you will respect,” on “Bonfire” and on “Hold You Down he raps “Listening to Sky’s The Limit on my Walkman. Thinking if Biggie can make it through man then I can,” comparing himself to the best of the best. It’s kind of like Jordan Crawford claiming he can be better than Michael Jordan.
So what exactly is going on here? Is Childish Gambino serious? Is this an ironic stab at the stupid details of music, hip-hop, race, and roots that we spend a ton of time studying? Is he for real?
I think the album title may shed a bit of light on his intent. Aside from the last line of “Bonfire,” there’s no reference to anything about camp throughout the entire album. Until the end of “That Power” where Mr. Glover tells us a story about coming back from summer camp. It’s spoken word. It’s meaningful for anyone who ever went to camp, or had a teenage relationship. “We’re still at camp as long as we’re on the bus and not at the pickup point where our parents will be waiting for us.” After he spills his heart out to the girl he’s been hanging out with all summer long, he expresses his feelings to her, after which she goes around and mockingly tells all of her friends about it. At which point, Donald changes gears, stops being a storyteller, and shows us where this never-ending self-deprecating rant has come from. “I told you something – it was just for you, and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody always.”
So this is where it comes from. Or maybe it’s just another story. But if not, then Childish is the least cynical and ironic person ever. He’s just a guy who’s always shared all of his thoughts with everyone, instead of keeping them inside, because he was burned so badly at age thirteen. Is this bullshit? Maybe. But it would explain why his raps sound like uninterrupted racing thoughts – because that’s what they are. They’re the unedited thoughts that everyone has. Everyone stresses about racism and roots and girls and being poor and being cool. Everyone has those thoughts running through their heads. Most of us just keep it inside to maintain a facade of being normal. Childish Gambino has taught himself to share everything, not because it makes him more powerful, a better person, or a better rapper. But because it’s the only thing he knows.
Is it all a big joke that he’s playing on us now? Pretending to be this honest while actually laughing behind the curtain? Possibly, but music is art, and art is in the eyes and ears of the consumer. And this is how I’d like to see it. Congrats, Donald Glover – not only does the album sound great, but it’s a beautiful diary that you’ve shared with the rest of the world.
“I wish I could say that this is a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man, more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit. But that’s not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven’t.”
Childish Gambino – Hold You Down
Childish Gambino – That Power