Society has always been a big sap for a good, classic underdog tale. It is as though it is deeply encrypted into the human DNA sequence to root for the little man in hopes that he will take down the current reigning “machine” and emerge victorious. We leaped for lizards when our favorite little red-headed orphan was finally able to melt the ice cold heart of Daddy Warbucks and leave that awful orphanage behind and get to have the real family that she deserved. We all were Fighting Irish when Rudy finally got to suit up and get in the game, and was lifted off of the field in a fiery blaze of glory after his unforgettable play. And we are all rooting for Childish Gambino and his new LP in hopes that he will convincingly evade the ever-looming curse that is the “good actor-turned-terrible rapper” malady.
If the moniker Childish Gambino doesn’t ring familiar (a moniker he obtained from the “Wu-Tang Name Generator”), most would probably recognize the rapper by his birth name, Donald Glover. He stands as one of the chess pieces in NBC’s brilliant comedy series, Community, and as a writer for NBC’s Emmy-friendly series, 30 Rock. Entirely gifted with perfect comedic timing and sharp wittiness, the Tina Fey protégé would appear to be a man of confidence and popularity, much unlike the ostracized, self-conscious man that he raps about and that which serves as the consistent theme on his new album, Camp.
On the opening track, “Outside,” Gambino attempts to present us with a powerful track backed by the vocals of a grand, classically trained choir on the hook, á la Kanye West style via “Dark Fantasy.” Rhyming over intense rock and roll electric guitar strums, he gives us a genuine peek into his childhood struggles that he and his family faced: “My dad worked nights putting on a stone face. He’s saving up so we can get our own place in the projects—man that sounds fancy to me.” He then proceeds to reveal how his mother worked two jobs in dangerous conditions, even once having a gun pulled on her, yet she still came home just in time to make dinner for her family in order to ensure that her children were granted a quality education, as she did not want them to end up like their troubled cousins. Having such caring parents oddly turned out to be a gift and a curse for Childish, as it backhandedly caused a rift between him and his closest relative. He raps that his cousin is: “Mad ‘cause his father ain’t around. He looking at me now like, ‘Why you so fuckin’ lucky? I had a father too, but he ain’t around so I’mma take it out on you.’” This leads us to one of the most honest and heartfelt moments on the entire record, when Gambino gives us a pure, introspective account of his tattered relationship with his cousin while literally reaching out to him: “We used to say I love you, now we only think that shit. It feels weird that you’re the person I took sink baths with. Streets took you over, I want my cousin back. The world saying what you are because you’re young and black; don’t believe them.”
This candid and sometimes brutally sincere intro stands as the ideal track to lay down the foundation for what should be a refreshing, thoughtful compilation that is sure to blow the music world away and solidify Gambino as a legitimate emcee. Yet, this idea never fully materializes.
Instead, we’re met by a wounded Childish who appears to still suffer from the teenage torment of being called an “Oreo and faggot” as he recalls in the song “Fire Fly,” which also suffers from a pretty sugary hook: “Now when they see us in the streets, all they wanna do is take pics, and I’m like okay, okay.” Oookay. He also seems to still be vying for his street credentials and validation as his response to the accusation of being “too soft” is: “Fuck you, I’m from the projects!” There are those charming moments, such as in “Letter Home,” where he sings to the woman who holds his heart that she is “the only one I’ve ever wanted.” But, possibly catching himself being a tad bit sentimental, he manly grunts and grabs his crotch and completely undermines his nice guy persona with the track “Bonfire,” where he cites how he is: “Eating Oreos like these white girls who blow me,” gives a lovely PSA with “Shout out to Gambino, girls my dick is in the building,” and politely warns “I’m in her ass like sodomy, so if you see my hand under the table, don’t bother me!” Much akin to his acting/rapping/singing twin soul brother, Aubrey Graham, it is very much perplexing how he navigates from the good guy who has been hurt before and just wants to find love to the cat’s meow that goes through women like clockwork . It doesn’t work. Plus, it’s a wee bit arduous to sympathize with someone whose problems include how much amazing sex they’re receiving on a consistent basis.
However, there are shining moments about Camp. Childish Gambino does possess a commanding use of the English language and has an extensive vocabulary in the arsenal; no need to rhyme “candy store” with “toddler” on his album (We see you, Nicki.) The album also lacked a slew of overbearing guest appearances – Gambino did all of the heavy-lifting on his own with the assist going to his producer, Ludwig Goransson. There was also quite a bit of singing on the record, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He can hold a note better than your average and you can tell that he totally killed at the family reunion talent shows.
Yes, Camp is flawed. There was no clear direction as to where this LP was going, in turn resulting in the record being all over the place, which proved to be its biggest downfall. And for Donald Glover to be such a comedic genius, Childish Gambino missed the mark with his timing more than a few times when it came to delivering his punchlines. It felt forced, almost as though there should’ve been an extremely corny 1990’s laugh track injected into songs. The fear of being dubbed just another “actor-wannabe-rapper” seems to have overwhelmed him, as he tried a little bit too hard to dodge that title. The potential and talent is there, next time he should just let it pour out more naturally.
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