Key Tracks: “I. the worst guys” “IV. sweatpants”
I’ll be upfront and say that I’ve never really gotten onboard with Childish Gambino. “You See Me” is one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, but I find most of his other work a mix of tepid and unbelievable. Gambino is the alter ego of Donald Glover – Community’s Troy Barnes, founding member of Derrick Comedy and writer of 30 Rock’s classic “Funcooker” episode. Glover will always be Barnes to me – the endearingly naive manchild/football star. But Childish Gambino is more than a Wu Tang-generated name, it’s a whole persona. Gambino is moody and stubborn on this album, and it’s impossible to tell if it is sincerely reflecting Glover, or if it just fits into a crazy narrative.
The album is split into five parts, although the first two don’t really have any strong narrative structure. Each song is prefaced by Roman numerals, restarting at each section, which gets confusing. The first section is just two seemingly unrelated songs, “crawl” and “WORLDSTAR.” The former is dull, and the latter features some incredibly lazy rapping. The second section also seems to have no arc, although features some of the better songs (including my two key tracks, the first of which features Chance the Rapper). The third bit is a concise and slightly disturbing look at regretting throwing a party and wanting everyone to leave. It’s a cold and alienating bit, in both good and bad ways. Finally, the last two bits are much longer and more experimental, dishing out on the ironic alienation of the internet. It’s the most concise and interesting part, although it does feature a lot of clunky internet lingo like “GPOY” pretty frequently. Still, the tone of the last few songs is hauntingly engaging.
Gambino is a product of the internet age. He released the album online and promoted it online, as many others are doing. Wikipedia’s entry for the album even has the cover as a .gif instead of a .jpg. The messages about how the internet is becoming our universal language are all true and convincing, especially coming from someone of the right age. Without the original online Derrick Comedy sketches, he would’ve never been noticed by 30 Rock in the first place. The album just feels inconsistent. At points, Gambino’s rapping is urgent and frustrated, at other points it’s sluggish and too apathetic. The ideas and the experimentation are largely successful, and this ranks as one of the more original releases of the year. It just feels forced coming from the man who uttered the phrase “It touched my butt’s mouth” in the Community season 5 trailer that came out one week later. “Because the Internet” is a zeitgeist for my generation, about the headlong dive into the technological era. But it’s less experimental than Kanye’s “Yeezus,” less moody than Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris,” and less online based than Death Grips’ “Government Plates.” Had those albums not come out within the last few months, “Because the Internet” might be a more important release. Surely, though, Glover will be back before we know it. I’ll be glued to my TV when Community comes back on.
If you like this, try: Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris.” Though not one of the most memorable rap releases of the year, it’s one of the most consistent, and a deep look into a disturbed man.
-By Andrew McNally