Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: Childish Gambino - "Camp"

This review was originally sent to a music website as a sample review. Figured I'd post it so that it sees the light of day, or something.

Everyone, just forget about Community. No, really. Work with me here.

Whatever the NBC comedy's as-of-yet uncertain fate, actor/scene-stealer Donald Glover is going to be just fine -- after all, at least he has his rap career.

Glover has tendered a number of releases over the past three years as Childish Gambino, and with Camp, artistic respect is imminent. Touted previously by many simply as an actor who could also rap and nothing more ("Oh, he can rap too? That's cute..."), Gambino showcases a penchant for smart, rich lyrics and commendable production. Camp isn't the NYU grad's 15 minutes of fame in the music world. It's his coming-out party. And he has a lot to say.

On the surface, Gambino might seem a Drake knock-off, another pop-leaning rapper who can kiiiinda sing -- never mind the fact that both have a similar path to musical stardom. But where Drake relies on a plethora of guest spots and at times gives in to cliched lyricism, Gambino excels by being the opposite. Camp is all Gambino all the time (a rarity in today's rap sphere), and very rarely does the rapper rhyme about overused themes such as monetary excess, club life and the exact same love stories we've heard a thousand times over.

Album opener "Outside" establishes Gambino as an underdog from the very beginning. "I used to dream every night, now I never dream at all / Hopin' that it's cause I'm livin' everything I want," he begins, with a choral-esque group vocal and bombastic percussion playing the supporting role. He proceeds to detail his childhood, a tough one by all accounts -- with one-bedroom apartments, trying to move up from the projects and alienation from one's peers as a result. It's a letter to his cousin, too, as well as a plea to the black community as a whole: "The world sayin' what you are because you’re young and black / Don’t believe ‘em."

Gambino is a comedian at heart, and at times his lyrics approach that playful nature the actor exudes in interviews and on Community. But the 28-year-old excels when the focus is less on humor and more on social commentary -- even though the two intertwine at times. On "Hold Me Down," Gambino muses about "Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain't hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain't that good enough?" "White kids get to wear whatever hat they want," he rhymes seconds later. "When it comes to black kids one size fits all." It's a song of perceptions society holds and the trouble with continuing to hold these notions. And no one is safe -- "Dude you're not not racist cause The Wire's in your Netflix queue," he spits.

Though some songs are reminiscent of earlier, more-DIY Gambino, others feature sleeker production, a sign of the rapper's ascent into the mainstream. "Sunrise," with its jaunty tempo, synth-heavy instrumentation and sunny chorus vocals, is reminiscent of early k-os's indie-esque production, while "All the Shine" features serene orchestral elements beneath Gambino's abrasive, tell-tale lyrics. And "You See Me" is pure dumb fun -- perhaps the purest, dumbest fun in hip-hop this year this side of Das Racist. Janelle Monae has "the funkiest horn section in Metropolis"? Gambino has the brashest. Oh, and asian girls. Everywhere.

And then there's "Heartbeat," album centerpiece and the song most likely to break out in a big way on Top 40 radio. Following a Drake-esque hook at its onset, Gambino unleashes spitfire verses over not-quite-but-almost-dubstep backing. Just listen to the edge in Gambino's vocal rise as each verse goes on. One of the most important aspects of rap is keeping the listener's interest kindled, and this is the kind of vocal that does just that.

Camp's shortcomings partially stem from Gambino's occasional tendency to go into showboating overdrive -- to the point where he goes overboard. And because of this, the album's inherent messages of social struggles and reform suffer. Plenty of listeners were unable to catch on to Watch the Throne's social commentary on first listen because it merely sounded as though Kanye and Izzo were boasting about their excess. While Camp doesn't suffer from the same exact issues, taking Gambino completely seriously is still proving to be a tough task. Perhaps it's his diction, his joking, the fact that he's a comedian/actor first and foremost.

Nonetheless, Camp establishes Childish Gambino as a prevalent force in modern rap. He's not only a lyrical wordsmith -- perhaps the best rap has heard since Kanye. What adds to Gambino's appeal is his ability to bring to the forefront various issues that he faces every day. When his rap career first surfaced, it was evident that Donald Glover was no one-trick pony. With Camp, he becomes the newest dark horse for distinction among the world's most important rappers.


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