The Donald Glover hype train is real. I just hadn’t hopped on board yet. The man is already prolific across multiple mediums: an actor on the TV show Community, a stand-up comic, and now with his music career under the Childish Gambino moniker. Not only that, but he’s also been a TV writer, and contributor to Derrick Comedy, a popular YouTube channel. Donald has been sought after for one reason or another. I’ve only had a brief look at the 31 year old’s resumé, and I was surprised at how far his reach extended. So I figured it was about time to dive in and find out why.
I haven’t been shy to admit that I’m behind on my rap game. We’ve all liked that one hit song when it rose to popularity, but the last time I was regularly listening to rap, I was too young to comprehend what most of them were even talking about. That changed last year, and more recently, when I reviewed Wolf by Tyler, The Creator, but I still don’t feel even remotely well-versed in the genre. Upon soliciting recommendations, Childish Gambino came up frequently as something that “I’d like.” I’m…. not sure exactly what that entails, but I’ve been interested in him for a while. I dig substance in music. So I figured I’d start from the beginning with his first album, Camp. In all fairness, Donald released a handful of mixtapes before Camp, but I’m here for album reviews, so let’s start this one!
One of the most noted characteristics I came across while looking into Camp was its genre: pop-rap. I wasn’t aware that pop-rap was a genre that was defined enough to stand on its own, but it makes sense. Pop-punk is only kind of punk. Pop-metal definitely exists (Avenged Sevenfold, Black Veil Brides), so why shouldn’t pop-rap? I feel that’s a bit gratuitous though. There are a few single-calibre tracks on Camp, but for the majority, musically and lyrically, I wouldn’t call these songs radio-friendly. That extends to the production quality. There’s nothing wrong with it. It just feels a little reserved. The album could hit a bit harder, and sound a bit fuller as a whole. It stays conservative for the most part, but when the heavy tracks like You See Me hit, they hit hard. That track in particular hits very hard!
There is one thing that’ll stand out from (almost) the moment you hit play: Donald doesn’t have the most, let’s call it “traditional” voice. He knows how to work in the more common elements of flow and inflection that we’ve come to expect. But there are things that don’t work in any context. He has a certain “snarl” that’s evident on some of the more intense songs, and he has the tendency to “loosen up” a bit too much in softer moments. Now, in context with the music, it gets a pass because it’s genuine, and is made reference to. It’s Donald’s voice, and his natural expression. That’s not something you can change, but even so, you have to play to your advantages. If it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t force it. It only occasionally becomes distracting.
That said, the crux of this album comes down to its lyrical content, and there’s a lot to analyze here. Donald threw a lot of honesty into Camp, and it’s evident across almost all of the tracks. It doesn’t feel like there’s any filler on Camp because there’s always something relevant catching your ear. The songs deal with not knowing how to deal with unexpected fame, past relationships failing, racism, tough upbringings, and the like. It’s personable. That’s what defines this album for me. There’s no air-of-superiority that litters most pop-rap, and that’s refreshing. Personally, I don’t like my music berating me. I like my music to draw me in as if I was part of a bigger picture that it represents. It’s an aloof metaphor when it comes to music, but it takes into account the album as a whole.
Let’s take a look at some lyrical passages, because I feel Childish Gambino’s strongpoint is his writing. Exhibit A: a portion of the second verse from Firefly:
“What you gonna do man?
You won’t speak to the hood, man.
If I was given one chance, I think I could man.
These black kids want somethin’ new, I swear it.
Somethin’ they wanna say but couldn’t ’cause they’re embarrassed.
All I do is make the stuff I would’ve liked,
Reference things I wanna watch,
Reference girls I wanna bite.
Now I’m firefly, like a burning kite.
And you’s a fake f—, like a fleshlight”
And one more from Hold You Down:
“Cause God knows what these white kids sayin’
Dude you’re not not racist cause The Wire’s in your Netflix cue
It’s hard to pin it cause you’d only understand
If you were me for just a minute
This one kid said somethin’ that was really bad
He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad
I think that’s kinda sad
Mostly cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that
If you’re a father, you should stick around if you could
Cause even if you’re bad at it, you get Tiger Woods, MJ”
Camp is a good debut. That’s the good and bad of it. There isn’t all that much to criticize, but it doesn’t push any boundaries, and that’s a shame. I’m sure this was a well-received album that established Childish Gambino, but there’s nothing new about it. Rappers have been spitting these songs for years. The endearing part is Glover’s transparency and personability (sic), which makes this album incredibly easy to listen to. It feels more like a heart-to-heart with a friend than a big LA Production. But that makes Camp a safe bet. Some artists flash in the pan with a litany of hits on their debut, but fail to recreate the magic on their subsequent attempts. I highly doubt Childish Gambino will fall into that category. If my suspicions are right, Camp is the cautious emergence that sets the table for another act in Donald Glover’s prolific career.