Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Artist of the Day - Childish Gambino

When Donald Glover half-laughed the line "Why does every black actor gotta rap some? I don't know, all I know is I'm the best one." on "Bonfire", he essentially summarized the state of his rapping alter-ego Childish Gambino: obsessed with his race, obsessed with himself, and ultimately insecure about the relationship between his talents. Camp was a mish-mash of ideas, wildly flailing between serious issues and immature dick-talk, hiding behind jokes and technical inproficiency. The tracks that worked were carried by production value and catchy hooks, and Donald Glover's reintroduction into the entertainment world fell mostly flat. Since then, his career has shifted significantly; in 2011 he was starring on a cult comedy, releasing a standup special, and scoring minor rap hits. In 2013 he's fleeing a sinking ship of a show to do what most of his fans wish he wouldn't: focus on rapping.

It was only inevitable that Donald Glover would try to shed his on-screen identity for his on-record one eventually. Childish Gambino encompasses everything about Glover, for better or for worse. He's unfocused, jumpy, and multi-talented but reluctant to play to his strengths. As Glover has dissolved into Gambino, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine him as the improvising, bright sweater-clad, standup comic who most of his fans fell in love with. Childish Gambino is super-serious, morose, thoughtful, and complicated. He scrawls insecurities on napkins and lay them bare - or at least only filtered through Instragram - for his fans to see. Clearly he's eager to not just be the funny guy who raps, but the rapping guy who can be funny if he has to. Unfortunately, this ignores the major flaw in this plan: Donald Glover is not very good at rapping. He's an extraordinary improviser, a talented writer, and a surprisingly great actor. The problem is that rapping is the skill he's mastered least, but he's keen to let it become what he's known for.

A few weeks ago, Glover announced a surprise listening party in a Toronto park for his new album over twitter, which he immediately clarified was not a concert. I decided to go, partly out of the novelty of seeing someone I'd adored on screen in person. The crowd, mostly but not entirely white, iPhones in hand, swarmed in a circle around their hero, trying to grab a glimpse of him over the mass of hands and cameras. Glover himself sat in the middle, surrounded by his friends, quietly reading Nietzsche and listening carefully to the music, trying to ignore the mass of fans closing him in. Based on the past few months of publicity, I'm sure he loved the idea of the whole thing. The album was played on a small stereo and barely audible, and I could not honestly give a detailed reaction to it, other than that it sounded more like a rap album than Camp. The songs are more bare, and less poppy. On the other hand, Chance the Rapper seems to have taught him something about flow (thank god), and the material seems more tonally consistent than before.

Camp is worth listening to because it's a beautifully produced album that earns its punchlines, even if it also earns its criticisms. Because the Internet could honestly go either direction. If Glover's decided to recede into self-seriousness in an attempt to channel Kanye and Kendrick, he simply doesn't have the tools to deliver on that level. However, if he's willing to embrace the talents he was given, and stop running in all directions at once, December 10th could be the day that Donald Glover finally fulfilled his boast, and became the best one.

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