They playing Jeezy like that shit came out yesterday
Thug motivation, I was never a thug and they used to respect me for it
But now the game’s fucked up and I gotta Michael Corleone these niggas
On his last studio album, because the internet, Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, finally found his true niche in music: the man has a serious knack for the conceptual. That album’s absolute apex was a track called “Telegraph Ave (Oakland)” and its biggest strength was the cinematic depth put into the track, with its layered, nesting doll intricacy. This project feels like twin children born from that song, a split mixtape/EP that furthers the concept album stylings of bti with a simple, yet vital conceit. STN MTN is a bonafide Gangsta Grillz mixtape, complete with drops from DJ Drama, set in an alternate reality where Gambino is the biggest rapper in the South, “Roscoe’s Wetsuit” has sold 10 million copies, strippers get Mother’s Day off and Chik-Fil-A is open on Sundays. When the mixtape ends and Gambino “wakes up” we flip to KAUAI, a confection of pure, pop bliss.
The former is essentially a forceful reminder that, despite being an arch hipster and having written for 30 Rock, Glover is an ATL native. He may be dismissed in the critical conversation in favor of seemingly more credible MCs, but he shows serious chops here, despite leaning too heavily on regional points of reference, shouting out neighborhood landmarks like earned badges of honor. He seems less concerned with solidifying his place in the pantheon of Important Southern Voices and more preoccupied with silencing casual listeners who may consider Australian born Iggy Azalea more “authentic” just because she gets snapchats from TI. DJ Drama makes for a surprisingly apt co-star in this extended roleplay exercise, fomenting Glover’s status while punching up tracks that might otherwise seem rote, like the previously released “Candler Road.” The man that reminded us that Dedication 3 was the first tape we bumped while we had a black president is a blast here, musing on texts from angry exes like some Weird Twitter-y Nicolas Cage version of himself.
There are two things that happen at the beginning of the mixtape that gives a winking, idiosyncratic bent on the classical Gangsta Grillz form, namely American Dad! voice actor Scott Grimes doing an opening drop as his character Steve Smith, and a brief but notable sample of Bjork’s “Venus As A Boy.” From there, it feels like some capable, exciting, but at times hollow cosplay of mixtape era Lil Wayne, an influence of Glover’s dated back to the Sick Boi days. He mixes new tracks with old instrumentals confidently, if inconsistently. The strange facsimile of Future’s “Move That Dope” Gambino spits over leaves something to be desired (namely, the real beat) and that particular medley’s later guest appearance from Young Scooter is probably the project’s only useful feature, as the rest of Glover’s ROYALTY crew are entertaining in doses, but largely bland.
It’s STN MTN‘s final act that’s most impressive. The highlight of the entire tape, “Childish Gambino @ The Atrium,” is a rap skit that’s actually funny (as to be expected from a noted comedy writer) and plays out as a fake radio commercial for a Gambino concert, in the style of every radio commercial for a local rap show ever. Regional-specific references are peppered liberally, along with vocal samples from The Boondocks and Kanye West’s amazing appearance in the Kobe System commercials. It’s a fun bit of parody that seems loving rather than reductive, and it perfectly sets up the last few tracks, including a great one-two punch closer in “All Y’all” (over the old Timbaland & Magoo track) and “Go DJ,” thanking DJ Drama by using the prime Weezy track as closing credits.
“All Y’all” shows Glover at his most strident and comfortable. After a round of radio interviews aimed at reminding people that he is in fact black and does in fact listen to music that isn’t Haim, hearing him just sound like a man at the top of his game having fun is refreshing. Unlike his “epic” Hot 97 freestyle, an impressive but forced feeling display of lyricism, here he doesn’t sound like he’s trying to prove anything. He’s just doing it. Jay-Z comparisons always ring hollow, but there’s something Hov-ian about this particular display of charm and elan.
I know them gorillas
I hang with them killers
They paint ’em as villains
When really they livin’
We got abroad
This is World War Three
I’m the new Jay-Z
I ain’t write shit down
I’mma steal that crown
I’mma do that thing
Girl, you sweeter than mango
How he cool and confident with hair like Django?
By the time we get to KAUAI we’re a little rapped out, mercifully serenaded by a set of Gambino’s most polished and affecting ballads and jams to date, something of a Godsend to the younger fans of his who dwell subreddits and message boards, furiously typing things like “Ugh, why are these annoying DJ shouts all over the mixtape?” Glover takes inspirational cues from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the many works of Pharrell Williams. (Two Neptunes-related cuts appear on STN MTN, the Ludacris throwback “Southern Hospitality” that serves as the opening salvo and a silky cover of fellow Georgian Usher’s “U Don’t Have To Call.”) Every Gambino release has housed a standout cut that’s essentially just really silky and designed to be sequenced at the end of a mix for a summer crush, in the tradition of tracks like “Got This Money,” “So Fly,” and “Love is Crazy.” His growth as a performer is heavily evident here when he repurposes that latter track for “Retro,” a brilliantly executed song that beefs up the vocal presence from the original.
“Sober,” the EP’s opening track, makes for such a stark contrast from the rappity rap antics of the mixtape, and everything thereafter follows the same suit. “Poke” deviates a little from the blueprint with a humorous (unintentional) impersonation of Bilal, but “Pop Thieves (Make It Good)” and “The Palisades” both sound like smash records that easily would have rested in the top spot on TRLs gone by. Of course, everyone’s favorite philosopher Jaden Smith makes an appearance on “Late Night In Kauai” for a low key navel gazer that would seem like a joke if it wasn’t so sweet and earnest. Because Glover is big on challenging his listeners and engaging them beyond just downloading a .zip file off of Sharebeast (this is the same guy who wrote a screenplay around his last album), the EP’s last track, what appears to be a remix of hit single “3005,” is actually the instrumental half of a secret track he’d been teasing since because the internet dropped. The vocal half could only be uncovered with a knowledge of coding.
By catering to his detractors with a prepossessing interpretation of the kind of music no one considers him capable of and still managing to make sugary, anthemic sing-alongs for kids who had to jump on Wikipedia to understand the LaFace Records reference in the intro, Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino project turns an important corner. He no longer comes off like a comedian play acting as a musician, but as legitimate triple threat continuing on a promising trajectory. That he manages to reassert his blackness without pretending to be someone he isn’t is an endearing bonus. Whether or not anyone will ever take Troy from Community serious as one of the top rappers in the game is another story, but after this release, I imagine there’ll be fewer chuckles at the mere mention of his name.
 Real shit, I saw a thread where someone posited that Glover’s next album would be called Almanac, and one poster remarked “almanacs are supposed to help predict the future, right?” This is the new generation, everyone.
STN MTN is available for free digital download on DatPiff and KAUAI can be purchased on iTunes.