Childish Gambino – “Because the Internet”

(Photo Credit: hiphopwired)

Grade: C-

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

Earl Sweatshirt – “Doris”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Chum,” “Whoa”

Everyone knows what made “The Silence of the Lambs” one of the scariest films ever. Little of the movie’s horror was in the face of the viewer, but infiltrated the mind instead. And it was driven home by the powerful believability of the actors. Earl Sweatshirt’s full-length debut, “Doris,” exists in much of the same way. He was the rising star of Odd Future when the group took a sharp and sudden rise to fame in 2010, and was a promising rapper in an otherwise passable group. His mysterious disappearance and fall from the public eye left the spotlight open for Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean instead, both of whom capitalized on it. His first EP, “Earl,” saw brutal tales of murder and a violent life, much in the Odd Future way of over-exploitation and disgustingly perverse gore in the lyrics. It was a lot, but with Sweatshirt’s capabilities, he pulled it off.

“Doris” is just as frightening of a record. But Sweatshirt leaves the restraint of Tyler, the Creator and gets into the listener’s mind, lyrically and musically. Sweatshirt raps often about growing up without his father, and how he feels he should be angrier about it than he actually is. And he raps about dealing with drug use, a possible cause for his disappearance (he is only 19 now, placing him at 16-17 then). Sweatshirt is a conflicted man, and he easily brings his mental anguish onto the record for us all to experience. His short songs and drone music accompany an often low-key style of rapping that sounds like he might be phoning it in, but really, he is so wrapped up in his own problems that he can’t work through them well enough to deliver what fans might expect. It might be added effect, it might not be, but like watching Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, it doesn’t really matter. It’s effective enough as is.

Only two of the album’s fifteen tracks stretch over four minutes. No idea sticks around long, adding to the effect of Earl spouting out ideas and stopping when he can’t find resolutions. And musically, although the albums switches handily from beats to horns, etc, there is a constant drone feeling, a slight feeling of dread hanging over it. The music is often as low-key as the rapping. A plethora of guest stars tend to keep it cool, too. RZA flies off a bit (in an entertaining way), but Frank Ocean, Vince Staples, Mac Miller and many others contribute to the album’s tone. He even keeps the asinine Tyler, the Creator from flying off the handles and (relatively) keeps his profane manner down. One of the album’s best songs is “Whoa,” the second of two tracks with Tyler, that features both of them playing it cool over a unique, vocal beat.

“Doris” is not really revolutionary, and it does jump around a little frequently. Sometimes, it’s deeply honest and affecting. Sometimes, it’s tough to follow. But it is a narrative, and a brutal telling of a man who has too many problems for someone of his age. When the audience first sees Hannibal Lecter, he is locked in his cell, in a very mentally scary shot. “Doris” is a cell for Earl, and it is an album that sticks out more in the mind than in the gut. And for this, it’s more grounded and affecting than Odd Future could ever be.

If you like this, try: “Twelve Reasons to Die (The Brown Tape)” by Ghostface Killah (2013). An alternate version of his album from the spring that adds a minimalistic production. It also has a narrative feel, though one that goes more for the gut.

-By Andrew McNally