Actor-turned-rapper’s studio debut doesn’t quite convince.
Ele Beattie 2011-12-05
"I'd get you MTV if I could, man / But Pitchfork only likes rappers who are crazy or hood, man," observes Childish Gambino, accurately, on his debut studio LP. And it's a shame, because despite momentary outbursts of written-to-shock X-rated verses tarnishing women or haters, and a memory of growing-up listening to Notorious B.I.G.'s aspirational get-out-the-ghetto anthem Sky's the Limit, Camp is an open letter declaring that this self-confessed "nerdy ass black kid" and "well-spoken token" is an MC who is neither crazy nor hood.
And MC is just another job that the man more commonly known as Donald Glover can now add to his already impressive CV, taking in comedian, actor and writer. Having previously penned gags alongside Tina Fey at 30 Rock, Glover currently co-stars in semi-surreal indie comedy Community with Chevy Chase. Factor in that he plucked his alias from a Wu-Tang name generator, and he must be kidding us on a bit, right?
Wrong. Glover does poke fun at himself, renaming "me and hip hop the Black Sid and Nancy"; but he also spends the majority of this album asking us to take him seriously, citing his history of giving away free mixtapes as evidence of his sincerity. Almost to prove his ‘realness’, his sprawling stream of consciousness delves into some sensitive areas, both emotional and social. Like his fellow-actor-turned rapper Drake, he spotlights his overturned heartache now that fame scores him chicks galore. His dark, horny internal monologues are memes shared by the twisted after-party RnB of The Weeknd's House of Balloons and Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – but while all three use poetic license to embellish sleazy tales, with Glover it feels awkward, like he’s turned up to this exclusive party without an invite. Community spotlights idiosyncrasies brilliantly; but Camp’s stereotype-riddled verses aren’t half as imaginative as they might be.
Each day at work Glover steps onto a different set or into a new outfit, and it's difficult not to view Childish Gambino as just another character in the plot. Teaming up with Community music writer Ludwig Göransson, his beats are all over the record shop: dipping a toe in gangster rap on Backpackers, trying on some West Coast swagger for Fire Fly, turning the synths up on the preppy electro of Heartbeat, and stepping up to the vocoder on the eerie RnB of L.E.S. Both are talented at writing and composing, but it feels a little like a game of dress-up for Saturday Night Live's The Lonely Island rather than the dawn of a partnership with long-term potential. For fans of both Community and hip hop this should be a no-brainer, but although Glover plays the part of rapper exceptionally, he needs to do a little more to stop "n****s asking whether this dude's for real or not".