Confession: For a very long while now, me and hip-hop have been on the outs. This rift feels like the slow-motion dissolution of a very long and complicated relationship – Can it just die, already? But there is a tether, something that won’t allow me to let go completely. It’s easy to cocoon myself in the recollection of the good times, sit there, basking in the nostalgic glory of that initial boom-bap love affair. But most of what I feel is nostalgia. Smiling when I first heard 3 Feet High and Rising, feeling that rush of adrenaline when the life changing force of The Low End Theory spilled from the ancient Panasonic; or hearing The Roots Organix and all was right and good with the world. Even now, there are a few hip-hop artists that I will buy (yes, buy, not download) religiously: The Roots, Roots Manuva, Aloe Blacc, El-P, but there aren’t too many who fall in the rarified sphere of me parting with my cash. As you can tell (and I’m sure I’ll be accused of it) there is a certain ‘type’ of hip-hop I enjoy. I want it to be smart, witty, and have a certain whimsy. Hip-hop needs whimsy. Trust.
When I first heard Childish Gambino on his several inconsistently produced mixtapes, I was intrigued. He was funny, and seemed to realize that self-deprecation is a more interesting form of arrogance. While the mixtapes: Culdesac, I Am Just A Rapper 1 & 2, Poindexter, and Sick Boi were interesting insights into Donald Glover’s rhyme ambitions, they were still too few jewels in a whole bunch of whatever. Then this cat drops Camp.
First listen: I was pissed. Is this another MFer who is yelling at me? Can you take a breath and modulate your voice? Please? The first joint, “Outside”, sounds like something that ‘Ye left off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy all bombastic crash and ghostly choral voices and ascending vocal hook. Even the lyrical content is Kanye-esque in that it is revelatory and personal. Fire Fly, is a sub par offering of more ‘O woe is me, I’m not black enough’, with a beat that is about as compelling as watching The 700 Club...with the sound off. Bonfire steps his game up. There are probably more pop-culture references in this song (“kiss my ass/human centipede”) than in a Kevin Smith film, but they work. He actually has my favorite lyric on the whole album: “black and white music/now nigga/that’s a mixtape”’. The beat is hot enough, but Glover suffers from old-school Talib Kweli disease: trying to expel too many words in a single breath. Relax, chief. All the Shine is a vulgar confession. As with the first song, it reeks of ‘how can I make this as appealing as possible’? It has this slightly militaristic drumbeat and this awful R&B hook, and then a computer affected voice asking, “why you gotta act so strange?”He is calm on this track, giving us the opportunity to focus on his lyrics. What comes next is Gambino singing. My heart stopped when I heard Letter Home. WTF? Is this Drake? I was about to throw my iPod out the window. Whether he is talking about an actual girl or making thinly veiled reference to hip-hop will be debated until he sets it to rest by providing an answer. Heartbeat is a pseudo circuit party track. It wouldn’t be too out of place at an almost happening club in San Francisco. “No co-sign/trigonometry” this made me fall out laughing. I’m a nerd.
While most of his music on this album, up to this song, Backpackers, is Glover hip-hop credentialing, this song solidifies his place as the anti-Pitchfork. No intellectual posturing filtered through a lens of cultural removal or exoticism. He firmly establishes himself as the outré-noir, that alterna-black who wants to be accepted, but delivers a pre-emptive cursing out so that he can protect his feelings—if you choose to disapprove of his music. L.E.S. is not really worth talking about. For me, it was very hard to listen to because these is this water drum sound that, when listening to it with ear drums, is almost heart attack inducing. It’s the blandest song on the album. Make no mistake; Gambino is a very skilled lyricist. While there have been numerous comparisons with Lil Wayne, in terms of the amount of punch lines they both deliver in a minute of music, Gambino’s punch lines seem to be enhancements to the songs, while Wayne’s seem like a compulsion. Hold You Down has my second favorite lyrics: “he said I wasn’t really black/because I had a dad/I think that’s kinda sad/mostly cuz a lotta black kids/think they should agree with that”. Ouch. Never mind. This is my favorite lyric on the album. Kids (Keep Up) I starts like a Badly Drawn Boy noodling. It then turns into Childish Gambino’s radio-friendly hit (heavily edited, of course). That military beat once again rears its head; more singing hooks, but damn if it doesn’t work. It’s a Bruno Mars song. You See Me is at the height of race-baiting misogyny in 13-tracks of ridiculously misogynistic lyrics.
While there are some funny lyrics, this song is one of the reasons that me and hip-hop stare warily at each other across the room: bitch, hoe, nigga. It can get too be a bit too much. Only Glover could get away with name-dropping the worst interviewer of black people in the history of radio: —Terry Gross on the mic/I’m the talk of the nation. Sunrise is the Gambino formula song: Boasts + self-deprecating lyrics x funny/offensive punch lines repeat. The 13th track is That Power (another nod to ‘Ye?) A subdued drumbeat explodes into a sunray leaking through a raincloud. It’s another hater-defense song, but it is a great way to end the album. Glover is at the top of his lyrical form. The song then turns into litany of lessons learned that could have (should have) been produced by Prince Paul. It ends with the thesis of the album: “I wish I could say/this was a story/of 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”.
From this review, you probably think that I dislike the album. That Camp is the sonic equivalent of Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now a heaping pile of: Why am I not black enough? Fine, then. I’ll redefine what black is (not that this is a bad thing). On a song by song listen, there are kernels in Gambino’s project that stick in your teeth and became irritating. But as a total album experience, I cannot get enough. It is one of my favorite releases—not just hip-hop—this year. Go get some.