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It’s a big week for Donald Glover. The internet is responding violently to NBC’s decision to pull Community (on which Glover plays college student Troy Barnes) from their winter schedule and he released his first commercial album under the moniker Childish Gambino. Glover is a writer through and through. He worked as a staff writer on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock before he got hired on Community and his background in wordplay is all over his music. People have been petitioning to keep Glover’s show Community on the air all week, and many arguments for the show’s quality talk about Glover’s unique comedic voice. I would argue that voice is much more loud and clear here than it ever comes through in the muddled mess that Community has become. Community uses pop-culture references to make the show feel high-brow and smart (there is literally no other reason to reference My Dinner With Andre), Childish Gambino uses touchstones to relate to his audience. Lyrics about being the only black kid at a Sufjan Stevens concert, feeling like Carlton from Fresh Prince and not getting praise from Pitchfork’s site give us a clear picture of Glover’s experience. He’s not using these to impress you, or to prove how cool he is, he just wants you to know how he feels. While Community wants you to intellectually “get it”, Glover’s music wants you to feel where he’s coming from. He has less to prove and is able to say more because of it.
The album is more aggressive than the mixtapes he released for free, but it deals with much of the same subject matter; the pressure to conform to a “black” identity, being a nerd and pop culture. Gambino is most successful when he combines these three topics; “You’re not-not racist cause the Wire’s in your Netflix cue” is a particularly inspired line from “Hold You Down”. Unfortunately, this album loses a lot of the playfulness that his past releases have had. It feels serious, like he set out to make an album that means something. Angst isn’t something I want from a comedy writer, even when it’s expressed eloquently. I found it ironic that the album themed around summer camp feels like its lacking the child-like sense of fun that his early work had.
The strength of Gambino’s rap is almost entirely in the lyrics. This is why the spoken monologue at the end of “Camp” is stronger than anything else on the album. His delivery is almost squeaky high in comparison to his peers, and his singing is nasally. The beats are nothing to write home about, they feel like leftovers deemed not good enough to be used on Kanye West’s debut “The College Dropout”. They’re 80s inspired and a little synthy, but fail to make a real impression. Childish Gambino’s hilarious, dense lyrics make up for most of the musical shortcomings though. At least for the first few listens it’s completely enjoyable to focus solely on the lyrics and dissecting them. This will never be an album I love, but the lyrics make it one that I admire.
Hear all of “Camp” free here from NPR