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

Jay-Z – “Magna Carta Holy Grail”

Photo Credit: hypetrak.com

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Jay Z Blue,” “Oceans”

“Watch the Throne,” the rap experiment from Jay-Z and Kanye West in 2011 must have left a mark on both performers. Both Jay and Kanye released albums this summer that showed growth and change as performers. But where Kanye’s “Yeezus” was a tormented work of introspective loyalty and political consciousness, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is just an album of basic beats and repetitive lyrics about Jay-Z’s wealth. Jay-Z is said to be worth about $500 million alone, plus the wealth of his equally-famous wife, Beyonce. His ‘change’ is a further disconnect from his own fans, where his constant rapping about European vacation destinations sounds more like bragging to an audience than typical lyrical boasts. Rap & hip-hop is typically a young man’s game, and with Jay’s 43 years bringing him twelve platinum albums and partial ownerships in a nightclub chain and a professional basketball team, he is officially too far into the entrepreneurial world to sound fresh and real in the hip-hop world.

The album is not all bad. “Part II (On the Run)” features typically amazing work from Beyonce, and “BBC” is a fun song because of it’s guest spots: Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Nas, Pharrell, and Swizz Beatz. “Jay Z Blue” is a brutally honest song about his daughter, and how he fears comparisons to his own father who was never around but for very different reasons. And “Oceans” features a well-placed guest spot from Frank Ocean, on a song about the film “Ocean’s 11″ being a metaphor for Jay’s accumulation of wealth.

Some tracks are just bad. The opener “Holy Grail” which also features Timberlake, is a bombastic call for receiving a legendary status, as Jay and JT channel Kurt Cobain and harmonize on an amended version of the chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Not only does it sound bad, and not only does Jay already have the legendary status that he is attempting to claim to himself, but it is that kind of fame that led Cobain to suicide in the first place. The song is a dramatic misreading of Nirvana. “Somewhere in America” is the album’s worst track. Hova raps about how he’s good at math because he can count his money and than randomly mentions Miley Cyrus twerking. The song sounds like Jay freestyling a joke song in the studio and adding serious beats to it to make it a real track.

Other than the feeble Nirvana reference, there are some delightfully surprising references and soundclips on the album. Sinatra and Johnny Cash get reworkings that work much better than Cobain’s. M.I.A. and R.E.M. also get references. The most surprising, and haunting, is a soundclip from “Mommie Dearest” that leads in to “Jay Z Blue.” Where the album has some interesting references and clips, it is lacking in guest spots. A majority of the songs are just Jay-Z, and with the repetitive lyrics, it starts to get pretty old pretty quickly. Overall, “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is a very safe album that takes no chances whatsoever and sounds disconnected and pointless because of it. Hova is just too far out of reality to relate to any listener besides those that already appear on the money-drenched album.

One final note: the album was famously released to Samsung Galaxy users a week ahead of time. This irked me in two ways. As a Galaxy user who downloaded the album, I had to sign away the rights to all of my personal privacy in order to get the album. I’m personally expecting a bodyguard to show up at my door soon after I publish this and question why I didn’t like the album. With the NSA leaks and Hova’s past songs against privacy concerns, this didn’t even make sense. Also, I didn’t even get the album until Saturday, something like four days after I was supposed to, which almost negated the point entirely. Even then, the app died twice throughout playing the album. The album is already platinum and Jay already has millions because of it, but at what cost to his fans?

In conclusion, here’s a screenshot from the commercial that advertised the album that accurately sums up the problems:

Jay-Z is, at the end of the day, an adult father. And at the end of the day, this was an album that was advertised on television.

-By Andrew McNally

Wale – “The Gifted Season”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “The Curse of the Gifted,” “Gullible (feat. Cee-lo Green)”

Washington D.C.-based rapper Wale is showing a lot of promise on his third official full-length, “The Gifted.” There is a feeling of maturity on the album, a sense that Wale wants to be taken seriously as a musician, which is a tough barrier for a young rapper to overcome. He is still young though, and a fun-loving sense of immaturity bleeds through the record, in really enjoyable ways. While some tracks are tight and serious, some are loose club jams, and they all blend together to make a diverse album where nearly every track stands out from the previous, even if some are not overly creative.

Wale toys with a few rap cliches on the album, all of which are gleefully effective. The album’s leadoff single, “Bad,” is the last track of the album. But a remix of the song (featuring Rihanna), shows up seven tracks earlier, and even though the two versions sound very similar, the remix serves as an actual track and not something tagged on the end to extend the album’s running time. The album’s title – “The Gifted” – is a play on egotism in rap (and the album dropped only one week after Kanye West’s “Yeezus”), as Wale’s goal for the album is to try to establish himself as a musician, not to gloat about his previous work and success. The album’s best cliche is the second-to-last track, where Wale teases at his next project. But instead of teasing at a proper duet, like Watch the Throne, he teases at “The Album About Nothing,” an album – that’s actually happening – that he is recording with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld appears on the tease, showing up to the wrong recording. It’s a great moment that sets up an album that will probably be a great and glorious mess.

At seventy minutes, the album does feel long. It takes some effort to make it all the way through. Some fat could have been trimmed, and maybe one or two of the less mature tracks could have been cut. Getting to the track with Seinfeld and “Bad” is a pay-off at the end, but the album does not need to be as long as it is. Still, it is a solid and creative effort from a man trying to prove his place in the music world. I think he succeeds.

-By Andrew McNally

Kanye West – “Yeezus”

Photo Credit: E!

Photo Credit: E!

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “I Am a God,” “New Slaves”

(Note: This and a few other of my reviews will be featured weekly on The Filtered Lens)

Kanye might be one to constantly reinvent himself, but “Yeezus” will still be a mark in his discography, the moment where his music truly hit revolutionary ground. “Yeezus” is an eclectic work, resulting in what has to be the first ever industrial rock / hip-hop pairing. This is the result of Daft Punk, Rick Rubin and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon all showing up with writing and producing credits.

Musically, “Yeezus” is a sonic experience. West’s rapping is mixed over blends of house and industrial music, with dramatic tonal shifts at any moment. “I Am a God” switches from rapping to ambient screaming at one point. The music lands anywhere from personal to terrifying, in a way that flows throughout the whole album. It feels minimalistic, too, despite the genre blending and the originality. Rubin was brought in to make a more stripped-down sound. West released no singles for the album, because hearing a track on the radio would diminish its feeling of placement as musically, the album can only be appreciated as a whole.

West’s lyrics lack any sort of flow, providing a surprising disappointment for the album. They are effective on every song, but there is no zeitgeist, no general theme. Songs like “I Am a God” and “New Slaves” aim to make some serious notes on culture, while “I’m In It” is nothing more than a crude song about sex. With no flow, the statement songs are less effective because they sound like rants, even if they’re well-written and well-performed. Each track, individually, has great lyrics, but not the album as a whole. Still, “Yeezus” is a powerhouse of originality, worthy of all the attention it is receiving.

-By Andrew McNally