The Only Black Kid at A Sufjan Concert (Intro)
“10K for the drinks, now they say I’m insane / It’s been that for a minute now, Hedi Slimane…”
“Childish Gambino,” the rapper alter ego of writer/comedian/actor/compulsive hyphenate Donald Glover, has always been a problematic musical entity to invest in. His early songs all seemed like some bastard, mirror world version of The Lonely Island taking the piss out of the gleefully misogynistic screed of Mixtape Golden Era Lil Wayne, which was fine when people still thought Glover was kidding. As he began devoting more of his down time to musical endeavors, enlisting Community composer Ludvig Goransson to assist with production duties, his overall sound evolved, but not in any way that demanded critical plaudits. His free album Culdesac, with its pensive synths, “A Milli” bait drum patterns, and cartoonish boasts artfully peppered with measured bursts of sullen falsetto and withering self deprecation, might have registered more of a blip on the pop cultural radar if another self obsessed, Weezy-adoring actor-cum-MC wasn’t lighting the charts on fire at the time.
Total Eclipse of The Drake notwithstanding, Glover’s follow-up Camp was a considerable step up lyrically and sonically, introducing string orchestration, Justice ripping electro-noise and sun-drenched indie pop melodies to his repertoire. He had released an enjoyable album that rivaled silent nemesis Aubrey Graham’s Take Care for 90s baby solopsism, Pitchfork’s scarlet 1.6 score be damned, but as much as he positioned himself as a Kanye Westian savior for nerdy black kids, he couldn’t escape the strictures his limited narrative shackled him with. His skinny jean wearing, Animal Collective loving inversion of Mike Jones’ “…back then, they didn’t want me / now I’m hot, they all on me…” made it hard to take him seriously as the role model for a new generation of supposedly post-racial youths.
At the time, his biggest strength was his earnestness. Childish Gambino’s shallow thematic pool was made easier to wade in by Glover’s singular wit, a charming sincerity and a dedication to being true to himself. His mixtape Royalty, a misguided attempt at mainstream hip-hop cred, seemed to toss this aside, randomly coupling Gambino with accomplished rappers like Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown, hoping to gloss over the scrunch faced artifice on display with co-signs from RZA and Beck, themselves twin towers of the dueling pillars of Gambino’s influences. He seemed to be saying that it wasn’t enough for him to be accepted by indie rockers too content with life to enjoy Drake. He needed the stamp of approval from the fickle blog rap crowd as well. Why else convince Bun B to spit over Kavinsky’s “Nightcall?” While the songs were largely fun, and it was refreshing to hear Gambino grow and experiment lyrically, instead of relying on the same three flows, what he was gaining here in credibility and style, he was sorely lacking in content and heart. Troy was really going to leave Community for this?
I. The (Re)Birth of Emoji Rap
“You been doing this for too long / That Camp was a million years ago, sing me a different song…”
Donald Glover spent the better part of the year holed up in Chris Bosh’s mansion with a bunch of his friends and collaborators, grinding out his new album, because the internet. It’s arrival was heralded by a confounding short film, a really exciting freestyle named after legendary actor Yaphet Kotto, two charming singles, and a litany of interviews wherein Glover himself found a happy medium between Joaquin Phoenix and James Franco in terms of winking and bedraggled self parody. I’m going to dig into that other stuff later, but first, full disclosure, I really love this album.
With help on production from duo Christian Rich, Thundercat, Chance The Rapper affiliate Stefan Ponce and, of all people, Pop Levi, the “Childish Gambino” sound finally takes a much needed break from trapped out machismo facade to plumb more contemporary influences, like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Flying Lotus’s technicolor psych rap side project Captain Murphy, and pretty much the entirety of Toro y Moi’s oeuvre. The album is very much a “concept” piece, complete with track titles numbered with Roman numerals and broken into thematic suites and illusory interludes. Like any MC trying to think outside the box and rehab his image, Gambino dials back on the bars, relying heavily on a surprisingly affecting falsetto, hushed murmuring and a fair amount of catchy hook singing. The album jams and has a very natural groove, even if the overall aesthetic seems cobbled together from Glover’s disparate muses, more curated than created. Despite Glover repeatedly dropping Kanye West’s name in interviews, as though it would eventually result in acceptance to the Kanye’s Friend Playhouse Tyler The Creator seemed to earn himself lifetime admission to, the stylistic specter of Andre 3000’s The Love Below looms large over the proceedings, as if “She Lives In My Lap” were a fertile womb from which because the internet so spuriously sprang forth.
A few tracks, like “I. Crawl,” “IV. Sweatpants” and “V. 3005” feel only marginally superior to their Camp counterparts, but elsewhere, Gambino tries on different hats to considerable success. “II. Shadows” features a funky, jazzy mixture of melodic vocals and casual rhyming that works nimbly to secure a long lease in your ear’s real estate. The next track, “III. Telegraph Ave. (‘Oakland’ By Lloyd)” is one of the strongest, conceptually. A night drive to an ex-girlfriend’s house, blasting an R&B ballad and ruefully singing along turns into the album’s emotional climax. The fact that Gambino got crooner Lloyd to sing thirty seconds of an imaginary song to sell the idea that we’re just in a car with Gambino singing along shows a level of invention I didn’t expect from this outing. The album’s back half is more somber, a suite of songs about the acceptance of death and loss, each turning a stage of grief into a different variation on a theme, is astonishing. A track like “III. Urn” shouldn’t really work, a wisp of a moment, strung on a dulcet groove and a wilting high notes, but it breaks up the tempo of this run of songs, beautiful in its brevity and simplicity. “I. Pink Toes” channels Pharrell Williams (who I am nearly positive has uncredited vocal samples punched in throughout the song) to great effect.
For the most part, Gambino gets out of his own way, choosing not to rap longer than you might really want him to, letting experimental outros and instrumental solos force you to fill in the blanks. It’s clear that there’s a story to be told through this sequence of songs, but on the first few listens you can ignore it entirely and be moved by the spirit of the records. It feels like a summer album, began in one winter, and released in the next, designed to offer some warmth, some wooden stake to stab in Seasonal Affective Disorder’s frozen heart. The album closes out with a house-y cut featuring Azaelea Banks that sounds like the end of the world in a moderately budgeted, post millennial remake of The Matrix. Album closer “III. Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Aurenheimer)” delivers the inspired, but somewhat disappointing “state of the union” rapathon Gambino has crafted in the past, and Drake is much better suited for it. Lyrically, it leaves things on an open, pleading note, but it seems more like the bitter core left after enjoying a sweet fruit.
The music on because the internet follows the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy model of Winning People Over Through Perfectly Crafted Pop Music, albeit to less unilateral results and with considerably less sophistication, but it’s not going to win any Grammys, much less be snubbed for one. It’s the kind of adorable B+ you’ll spin for a couple of weeks, then move onto the next thing, mumbling about wasted potential, but that’s only half the story.
II. The Two Drakes, by Robert Towne (Interlude)
“Young, black, and gifted, but he’s still in America / Heard the flow was getting better. Is he sleeping with Erykah?”
When Pitchfork scribe Ian Cohen gave Glover that infamous 1.6 for Camp, he dismissed the Childish Gambino persona as a fallacy because it depended on a “pre-Kanye inferiority complex.” He was half right, in that Kanye West’s arrival in hip-hop, and pop music as a whole, really, irrevocably altered the landscape, both in terms of sonic crossover and the shifting perception of black masculinity within the culture. This criticism would have made perfect sense if Glover was ONLY complaining about not being taken seriously for not being from the hood, but his issue with his detractors was that, even with everything Kanye and his creative offspring have brought to hip hop. the critical elite still tend to cater to two extremes of the rap world: A) the frightening, absurd extreme of street rap, ie, Gucci Mane and B) the way out there, oddballs who lived in the (largely weed scented) clouds, like Lil B. (“Pitchfork only like rappers who crazy or hood, man.”)
If you’ve read my review of Nothing Was The Same, then you may be noticing some parallels with Drake’s personal mythology. Glover himself, in one of his many stoned promotional interviews, said he always knew that Drake’s success was going to be detrimental to Gambino’s crawl to acceptance. The Pitchforks of the world can’t deny Drake’s ubiquity and songcraft, but they’ll be damned if they have to acknowledge TWO hyper-self-aware actors from the burbs who have the nerve to actually take their new side hustle seriously. Where Glover, an outcast’s outcast, sees two bipolar halves of a broken record (“Hold up, it’s the kid, quick, tell him he can’t sit with us…”) Drake, ever the calculating diplomat, sees the potential for unity (“…then them hipsters gon’ have to get along with them hood niggas…”) Drake was able to convert his doubters through sheer force of will, playing the game better than most and reinventing himself as an undeniable presence on the radio. You may hate him, but he’s here and he’s not going anywhere. Glover doesn’t have the same insatiable desire to be the top guy, and while Drake’s commitment to his own image gives him the superhuman ability to make street threats with a stern, straight face, every time Gambino becomes enraged at his enemies, it results in an eye rolling punchline and a lot of awkward silence from the listener.
Many of the people who dislike Childish Gambino criticize him for the very traits they admire about Drake: the introspection, the self deprecation, the R&B-leaning LiveJournal take on rap. Initially, Glover’s edge was that he seemed self-effacing and lovable, his boasts and barbs a “we’re all in on the joke” kind of affectation. Somewhere along the line, Drake figured out how to present his narrative in a matter-of-fact tone that just washes better, and Gambino’s “I just sold a pilot, but I feel bad for finger blasting Aubrey Plaza at that St. Vincent show” shit blended into Old Drake territory. Drake annoys people for a number of reasons, but chief among them is his complaining about being rich and fucking pop stars. Maybe it’s different because the ingenues Glover was name dropping are mentioned in Under The Radar and not US Weekly, but by failing to distance his own aesthetic, Childish Gambino was destined to be second fiddle.
A note about Kanye West. He did create a new paradigm, and paved the way for guys like Kid Cudi and Drake to make their own lanes in the game, but while he left the side door to hip hop wide open, he also helped birth a new generation of youths, the Sons of Kanye, if you will. Story time. The other day, one of my co-workers, an older gent from out west, told me about one of his first days living in DC, and how shocked he was to see black kids on skateboards. Where he grew up in California, it wasn’t a sight he was used to. His first day at work, he walked in on another co-worker of ours, young black man with a lip ring, talking emphatically about Doctor Who. It astonished him, this level of crossover. Now, I’m not saying Kanye West is why black people watch Doctor Who, nor am I saying that black people watching Doctor Who are some systemic anomaly. There’s just a rung on the genre bleed ladder, a circle in the sociocultural Venn Diagram of life, largely inhabited by young people of color openly defying the expectations of their interests. This particular point of pop culture intersectionality is where you might see a Jordan III-wearing hypebeast unironically refer to Dragonball Z anti-hero Vegeta as “the realest nigga in the game.” The kids who came of age to In Search Of… and The College Dropout, who grew up in AOL chat rooms, who speak in meme culture, like the Junot Diaz reading Alpha (Beta?) to 4Chan’s basement-dwelling Omegas.
These are Donald Glover’s people. Glover doesn’t have Emma Stone’s Linsday Lohan-related luck, so he’s had to make his day in the shade cast by Drake’s “That’s no moon!” shadow, and he did that by figuring out how to tap into this conduit of raw, blipster energy.
III. Make It Last (White Keith Sweat)
“I mean, where’s the line between Donnie G and Gambino…?”
When Donald Glover said he was going to include a screenplay with his new album and create a unique promotional rollout, everyone kind of figured he would double down on the art house wank of his short film Clapping For The Wrong Reasons, a seemingly autobiographical twenty-four-minute puzzle set in the mansion the album was recorded in. It featured fun cameos from Trinidad James and Danielle Fishel and traded in the sort of obtuse pacing and dry shot composition one might expect from a film student who just saw Woody Allen’s Interiors for the first time. It was odd, but fun, and shot on actual 35mm film, purposeful plate scratches placed lackadasically in a few frames. Instead, we were given because the internet, a multimedia screenplay that revealed a whole new side of the album of the same name.
At the end of his last album Camp, album closer “That Power” culminated in a quirky, spoken word tale about a boy at a summer camp betrayed by his crush on the bus home, leaving him a wounded, stunted child who “never got off of that bus.” It was a strange way to end the album, sort of the autobiography at the end of Kanye West’s “Last Call” by way of Wes Anderson, but it gave Glover the chance to imbue his finale song with interesting vocal cadences and a kind of indelible pace that made it feel unique. That image, of the boy on the bus, is where he chose to open his script, with The Boy, Glover’s character, coming home to his rich father (in the descriptive paragraphs, said to be played by Rick Ross) and his mansion, the same mansion from the short film and the one the real Glover recorded in. What follows is a bleak, off-kilter but ultimately hilarious narrative that finds an uneasy medium between Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Zach Braff’s Garden State and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, the sort of post-modern, post-racial art piece that could only exist “because of the Internet.”
We follow The Boy, a rich kid who talks and acts like a dickhead version of the real Donald Glover, who passes the time by professionally trolling the Internet. He and his friends, played by his real friends, throw parties, drive around, smoke weed, surf, etc, and experience late night IFC-certified existential doubt. It could be written off as self-indulgent if it didn’t so fully reinvigorate the entire album it was constructed to accompany. Imagine if Pink Floyd were worried about the artistic longevity of Dark Side of The Moon and chose to write The Wizard of Oz as a companion piece. This isn’t like that. This is like Donald Glover made a Tumblr to sum up the album and then gave it life by typing “EXT. THE MANSION.”
Reading the screenplay online, as intended, there are small video clips embedded throughout (as they didn’t have the time, resources or inclination to shoot the script in full) complete with every track on the album, in sequence, set to be played at the appropriate moment. It really brings the entire thing to life. Seemingly throwaway moments from the album’s teaser videos, like Glover suspended in a pool, or what looks like snow (but is really something much more tragic) falling in front of his saddened face, become recontextualized in this new light. Glover essentially made DLC for his album.
The script alone would be a feat, with some truly well crafted comedic moments working in harmony with the story’s darker themes (keep your eyes peeled for a very timely cameo that will make you literally LOL after one of the most somber scenes in the entire “movie”) but Glover didn’t stop there. His character’s Twitter account in the script is real, and live, and has been for a little while. Artifacts and ephemera from inside this fictional world have been made available through performance art spaces and special bonus goodies to be purchased from select record stores with limited release vinyl versions of the album.
The more you read the script and watch the videos, the more you realize that the more you realize that Glover’s oversharing on Instagram, his decidedly hazed-out appearance in interviews, hell, his propensity for wearing the same outfit practically everywhere he has been in recent months, may have all been in character. It’s a bit of a cop-out to essentially “troll” your audience in real life, but that’s only if your intent is to shock or provoke. By compiling on of this bonus levels and blurring the line between fact and fiction, art and life, Glover and Gambino, he has maybe made the most successful Alternate Reality Game out of an album, ever. He’s managed to prolong the experience of enjoying an album in a very unique way.
“Give a fuck, or give ’em hell, just not a chance to react…”
He may not have won over the majority of his many critics, but Donald Glover successfully turned his weaknesses into strengths, deftly adapting to the ever-evolving New Normal of the music industry, crafting something that transcends being just an “album.” Because of the Internet, it’s not enough to just rap well or write smart hooks or make trunk-rattling beats. You have to capture people’s attention and give them a reason not to dump your .zip file in the recycling bin to make space for the next big thing. It’s by no means perfect, but because the internet is definitely a step in the right direction and well worth your time, however much of it you have to spare between levels of Candy Crush and binging episodes of Breaking Bad.
because the internet is available digitally at online retailers and physically in stores now.