There’s something inherently disarming about Donald Glover. Sure, his stand-up can get a bit dirty, but the fact that he has written for “30 Rock” and stars in “Community” produces a charming aura that makes itself known every time he melts into his toothy, childish smile.

Childish Gambino

Camp
Glassnote


Yet Glover’s rapping persona mocks this assumption. With his first label-backed album, Camp, he moves beyond the embodiment of the “childish” part of the moniker, suggesting it’s just part of a darker identity. Though Glover claims the name “Childish Gambino” came from a Wu-Tang Clan name generator, it’s obvious he keeps it for a reason: to lull listeners into a false sense of security before he brashly unleashes the darker parts of his soul.

It’s easy to grow bored with the familiar trope that is a rapper’s identity crisis — here is yet another young person who grew up alienated and disrespected, and is looking to music to rise above the oppression of society. But Glover didn’t grow up in the streets. He left Atlanta and went to art school, eventually graduating from NYU.

To view Childish Gambino through the confines of such a common theme is like making a kaleidoscope with one color: It neglects the inherent richness of his story.

The deepest parts of the album are painful reflections of how his identity clashes with — and cannot escape — the stereotypes of his race. In “Outside,” he confesses a complex relationship with his upbringing. He never felt part of the ’hood culture, “They talkin’ ’hood shit and I ain’t know what that was about.” Glover felt his upbringing did not lead to camaraderie with his peers — instead, he experienced alienation.

His parents ultimately decided to move away, but Glover maintains the struggles weren’t left behind: “Truth is we still struggle on a different plane.” Though he is surely surrounded by a fulfilling life, Glover still wrestles with his race. To emphasize the tragedy of societal pressures on identity, he laments his relationship with his cousin, who seems to have been an early hero now consumed by the callousness of the streets.

Unfortunately, the quality of Camp’s rich lyrics are not consistently paralleled by the music. He raps about creating a brand of “black rock,” but for the most part, there’s nothing that distinguishes his beats from what we’ve heard elsewhere. Some songs come together in a special way, but more often the jazz influences and sweeping orchestral and choral productions have been thrown in without a characteristic touch.

Perhaps “Sunrise” achieves Glover’s lofty goal. It’s a summery coalition of rock and hip hop, with a web of voices weaving around Glover’s in the form of a rallying cry. It’s a new form of pop. “That Power” builds on it, with the beginning forming out of a dark, choral style of production invoking Kanye before the track mellows out into a jazz monologue.

Sadly, beyond “Sunrise” and “That Power,” Camp is disappointing. Gambino is a new entry to the constantly expanding definition of “rapper,” but his music as a whole, with its grandiose plan of being a new “black rock,” doesn’t feel as fresh. The beats often seem recycled, and listeners are left to puzzle at how a creative genius like Donald Glover doesn’t offer any consistent musical innovation.

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