Childish Gambino – Camp Album Review
Some people just get all the talent, don’t they? Donald Glover, comedian and cast member of the hilarious television show Community (which, thank Jeebus, is returning from its indefinite hiatus later this month!!!), is one of these modern day Renaissance men. Most people who know of him know of his acting and comedic abilities. I’m guessing fewer know that he’s a rapper, too.
Going by the moniker Childish Gambino, Glover released his debut album, Camp. And he acquits himself well enough as a wordsmith here, that it’s no longer necessary to classify him as an actor/comedian who dabbles in rap. People who merely dabble don’t create something this solid.
Gambino falls squarely into the category of rappers that includes Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Drake. His style has a distinctly modern flair, with equal parts R&B hooks, comedic one-liners, braggadocio, and emotional pathos. There’s delicate work being conducted on some of these tracks, but there’s tons of shit talking and bipolar self-degradation, too. It’s a wild mix that has the tendency to contradict itself at a moment’s notice, but then you remember that at heart, Gambino is a humorist, and if his tactics are meant to elicit a smile, then he certainly succeeds.
Right off the bat, the album-opener “Outside” jumps into some hard and heavy issues, like Glover’s family struggles as they attempted to deal with and eventually escape a poor upbringing, and the subsequent trials to avoid getting sucked back into that way of life. This is a fitting way to begin the album, because it forces the listener, who likely knows of Glover as the wise-cracking funnyman, to step back and reevaluate what his or her expectations are for the rest of what’s to come. It’s not so much sentencing the album to become a dour affair as it is Glover asserting that he’s got stuff to work through along the way. As he remarks later on in “Hold You Down,” “Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us.” And Camp is an opportunity to be heard, so he’s going to take it.
These kind of racial or socioeconomic topics are actually in the minority as the album progresses. Most of what Gambino rhymes about has to do with the everyday, perhaps adolescent, desires to be seen as cool or accepted, and, of course, the quest of scoring chicks. He raps, “I don’t really like shades, big rims, or jewelry / but gettin’ time of day from a model is new to me.” And then his confidence deflates a little as he realizes they are probably just there for his fame and money. But in the schizophrenic contradictory nature that defines this record, Gambino gets self-reflective and admits he’s used women as much as they’ve used him, hooking up with women and then sneaking out in the middle of the night – an empty attempt at “making up for fucks I missed in high school.”
These lyrical hair pin turns flow over melodic beats and production, much of which Glover handled by himself, though also aided by producer Ludwig Gorannson. The beats ebb and flow, switching between charming and aggressive, and comedic jabs are always right around the corner to keep things on the lighter side. The tracks “Bonfire” and “Heartbeat” are the indisputable slam dunks on the record. The former comes out of the gates with a stuttering snare beat that drops into an exploding bass bomb, and when it hits it’s impossible not to move your body. “Heartbeat” enters with a somber piano line before slowly picking up the bass and ultimately culminating in a crackling electro thump.
Not all of Gambino’s rhymes would score the highest marks from a technical perspective (he even admits this himself, “I’m a mess / that don’t rhyme with shit, it’ s just true”) and more than a few jokes are corny as hell, but it comes off as charismatic because you know that he’s aware of their corniness and is moving forward with them anyway. This all ties in with his inherent need to knock himself down just as many pegs as he’s going to knock others down. Most rappers would rather quit the game than write their rival’s taunts for them, but Gambino draws a significant amount of inspiration from the fact that he doesn’t really think he’s all that to begin with, and, having admitted that, he has no use for anyone else seeking to serve him with some humble pie (especially those pompous and too-hip-for-school posers at Pitchfork who slammed this record, probably because Glover himself took a shot at them in “All The Shine”). Nowhere is this more apparent than on “Backpackers” which is itself a screed against close-minded rap fans. But even there, Gambino takes as good as he gives, rapping, “Ballin’ since 83′ / Half of ‘em say gay / Maybe that’s the reason I like Lady What-Babies-Say / I’m a problem / I’m lame as fuck homie.”
Camp ends with a fantastically awesome, heartfelt, and out of the blue four and a half minute spoken word story about returning from summer camp and spilling your guts to a girl on the bus before you both head your separate ways and it’s too late. I wouldn’t dare spoil the tale, but suffice to say, it serves as a character statement of sorts. Instead of experiences that could have left Gambino a cynical, stone-faced rapper, he’s latched onto those that keep him refreshingly open and honest, able to embrace his own sadness, and still in touch with his inner child, running around and falling in love with girls at summer camp.