Artist: Childish Gambino
Download at: IAMDONALD.com
Childish Gambino is the not-really-a-side-project rap persona of multiple-threat megatalent Donald Glover. What he’s most famous for depends on your perspective but before the Gambino project took off he won an Emmy for writing on the third season of 30 Rock, launched a stand up career and starred as Troy Barnes in the very deeply brilliant Community. He’s 28.
Royalty is either his seventh or eighth full-length release as Childish Gambino, depending on whether you let him forget a juvenile effort in 2005 he’s subsequently divorced himself from. He also releases mixtapes as a DJ, just in case you thought he was taking time off occasionally- coupled with writing and starring in TV shows and doing stand up, I figure that leaves him about four hours a year for other things, which he’s probably also succeeding at and I just haven’t found out about yet.
Last year’s LP, Camp was a major breakthrough- the combination of the success of Community and an official release meant it was the tipping point from a guy who also does some rapping (on I Am Just A Rapper he repeatedly pointed out that he was doing it in his spare time, in his bedroom; these days it’s about the studio at 8am) to being a rapper who also has to do a panel about a TV show before his gig at Comic-Con.
Camp was, to be totally blunt about it, the sort of rap that indie fans love- packed full of references, about being picked on at school, bittersweet and often deep while staying silly. Indie fans aren’t wrong that that’s awesome- it’s just some of them also like the Weeknd so quality control is sometimes off; it’s rare to find an act that bridges rap-for-people-who-like-rap and rap-for-people-who-are-consistently-derogatory-about-hip-hop-tropes and the alchemical reaction managed by Gambino, without even any guest stars, to let that happen isn’t to be sniffed at. Anyone who knows his other work knows he’s clever but to manage to get people in from that, who might not usually listen to rap music or be comfortable with explicit lyrics and simultaneously dress them down on stereotyping and make them like it is pretty darned exceptional.
It’s an album packed full of serious discussions of the silly (one track is an extended, train-of-thought reliving of not kissing a girl at summer camp) and being funny about the serious. ‘Backpackers’ is central to the discussions of race identity throughout the album and nails it succinctly with Alright it’s Childish, baby/Mr Talk-about-his-dick-again/Nerdy-ass black kid/whatever man, I’m sick of him/that well spoken token who ain’t been heard/the only white rapper who’s allowed to say the n-word/I buy a bunch of ‘em and put it on my black card.
‘Heartbeat’ is probably his best-known song now, a journey into the centre of a romantic breakdown that juggles semi-obsessive pain and confusion with lusty seduction and bitter jealousy (calling out his ex’s new boyfriend because he’s just a fake n*gga who BLOG IN ALL CAPS)-
It’s a gorgeous song- angry and self-hating like the best bits of Kanye, consistently lyrically dextrous and funny like the most brilliant bits of Fall Out Boy, that Justice-style electronic hump amplifies the emotion and it’s catchier than 90% of mainstream radio; when he sings, he sounds exactly as good as when he raps. It’s enough to drive anyone to either jealousy or raging lust. The deserved celebration of songs like this got him a bit of press, where he could talk about not filling people’s expectations of a rapper, being nerdy and small and not a gangster and being funny but not wanting to just be funny.
Royalty is supposed to be the change over; this is Donald Glover taking Childish Gambino out of being a hobby into being what he does. Not the only thing he does but a major part of it.
Or well… Community fans probably won’t be exactly filled with warm fuzzy reassurance by the lyrics of album opener ‘We Ain’t Them;’
About the best thing you could say for what the phrase back of my mind, though/I hope the show gets cancelled, maybe then I can focus means if you love Donald as Troy was what fan Tumblr Gambino Girls offered; he can’t leave, he’s under contract. And honestly, it’s probably just there for shock value in any case; the purpose of this mixtape, the desire to make Childish Gambino a project that carries, rather than is a sideline to, his other work, to be taken seriously rather than as a punchline rapper, requires some fronting. ‘We Ain’t Them’ is the declaration of independence on this and one of only two tracks with no guest spots.
Which is kind of funny, since the conversational style (although never Drake-type ramblings; Gambino and he get a lot of comparison, unjustly) and glowing, sunny beat make it a lot like Camp hitting the freeway in the sun. Most of Royalty is pretty wildly different- I don’t know if it’s the amount of guesting on tracks or whether it’s his resolution to do it properly but this is a pretty different animal. The second track, ‘One Up,’ features his brother, Steve G Lover and is… fine. It’s got a fantastic, sinister, radar bloop beat and it ticks and hums but there’s a weird disparity between the video game reference of the chorus (“we got that extra life, n*gga, one up“) and the ludicrous bravado of the lyrics- is Donald going to “shoot a G?” That would seem like some serious method acting for a role that isn’t Gambino. Frank Ocean’s beautiful coming-out note happened the same day Royalty dropped and honestly, this stuff sounds pretty stupid in context- it’s ok, Donald, you can be a sensitive young dude without having to make jokes about it! You don’t even have to be bi-curious.
Comparatively, ‘Black Faces’ is a more frequent Gambino theme, talking about media visibility of African-Americans; magazines got black faces when somebody dies/I mean, look at Donna Summer, she was tryn’a survive. Nipsey Hussle doesn’t add a great deal but he’s only on it at the start. Next track, ‘Unnecessary’ goes further into what seems like an increasing chunk of survivor’s guilt that Gambino’s working through- elements of self-disgusted description of privilege or at least, wealth stalk the album, from the previous track’s reference to his new low carb diet; ‘Unnecessary’ focuses more on what others do, framed as stuff he might. I’m sort of tempted to say that having Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul in the studio slightly constricted Gambino- I think there’s an element that people were disappointed with Royalty being more angry and less cute/funny than some of his previous stuff but with some of it, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it it’s that it does sound a little bit like he’s playing a role without a great script.
I don’t know if it’s to do with the stress of coordinating and accommodating guests on tracks but there’s a lot of repetition on this album. By the third track, you’re starting to get aware that a lot of the hooks are emphasised by endless repetition. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the intention to use it as a declaration of purpose but it isn’t a pounding force of invention, as a consequence.
‘Should’ve Known’ is the other track with no guest and leaves me wondering what the album could’ve been like if he’d just trimmed down the ‘feat’s a little- no one acquits themselves badly (apart from Kilo Kish, later in the album and on a badly judged track) but if you google ‘Childish Gambino Royalty’ your top hits are a bunch of news articles about Tina Fey’s rap debut. On the one hand, great trolling- a bunch of people will listen to the track she’s on. ‘Real Estate’ is the last song on the album and one of the angriest and hardest, about the disparity between rich and poor and the significance of property ownership (sort of- there’s definitely a point where he’s just shouting, almost Tracy Morgan-esque) but the most quoted lyrics are Tina Fey’s.
I absolutely appreciate that I’m a white British lady who occasionally has thoughts like ‘oh hey, the kids are listening to things on Beats by Dre and I’m totally listening to beats by Dre‘ and thinks this is enormously entertaining for an entire twenty minute bus ride and that however much I think I’m a ‘proper’ rap fan, I would suck as a rapper but surely there’s no possible reason other than press attention to close your album like that? I’ve genuinely puzzled over this for days- is it a message to say he’s not done with comedy, that the rest was messing? I assume he and Fey are friends from when he worked on 30 Rock so maybe it’s just some play of the type you can get away with on a free mixtape.
The most baffling thing is that that’s what the press have focussed on here, of course- two members of the Wu Tang clan have bigger guest spots but oh no, let’s headline it Tina Fey’s “rap debut.” The delicious irony of that after the ferocious press criticism in ‘Black Faces’ must be twisting someone’s rictus somewhere.
Speaking of the Wu Tang guest slots; they’re great. Childish Gambino is, famously, Donald Glover’s Wu Tang name according to this generator (shut up, you’re all getting ready to write angry comments to Wicked Killah) so it’s awesome to see him work with RZA and Hypnotic Brass Orchestra on the triumphant, infinitely ballsy American Royalty and with Ghostface Killah on the woozy, bubbly semi-interlude It May Be Glamour Life. The tracks feel central to the album, which raises the question of why the Ghostface one is only 1:37 and features no Gambino?
The best collaboration on the tape, by far, is with Bun B on RIP;
Aside from the fact the hook sounds like the soundtrack to a horror game for the N64, the stuttering chorus and Bun B’s confident opening verse are pure gorgeousness. There’s a real mass of producers on the tape- to my ears, Gambino works best when he’s producing himself, like on this track- some of the others just don’t seem to gel; the two skywlkr tracks get caught up in electronic production and particularly the Britney-sampling ‘Toxic’ ends up sounding like a cheap Youtube stunt.
There’s also two collaborations with dozy indie stalwart Beck here. Both feel like they’re kind of better than they have any right to be- ‘Silk Pillow’ reuses the hook from Camp‘s ‘Hold You Down’ but where the earlier song was sunny and lusty, this is greyer and more introspective, shot through with electronic interference. ‘Bronchitis’ is harder, more minimal and introspective “speak the truth and everybody gon’ hate you/unless its funny/that’s how I used to make money.” The clicking, ghostly beat makes it one of the stand-out tracks.
Equally brooding, ‘Arrangement,’ featuring Gonage, is another stand out track. The best moments on the tape are when he finds a way to bridge the divide between the harder, serious stuff he wants to do and the previous observational talk about relationships. I’d be the last person to say anyone needs to keep their rap twee and his best moments never were but there’s definitely moments here where he gets it a lot more right than others.
One moment it really does not work is the totally unfortunate Kilo Kish collaboration ‘Make It Go Right.’ I might sound like I’m being critical of this tape and I sort of am, in that it’s got me interested enough to be genuinely critical in the literary sense but I mean this one in the negative sense. I’ll admit I haven’t heard anything else by Kish but she seems to be a baby voice with the rapping skills of early doors M.I.A. As Rap Genius put it in their review at the HuffPo- probably best to lose this one’s number. I think Kish could be great if she worked with some more driven producers but there’s nothing appealing here, especially when you consider that even if he plays a teenager on television, Glover’s nearly 30. Hell, Kish is 22, she can quit with the little girl act.
‘Won’t Stop’ is the album’s closest link back to Camp- it’s produced by Ludwig, the writer of Community’s instrumentals and producer of Gambino’s album. I like the track an enormous amount; Ludwig’s got a great grasp of how to make an addictive underlay and the nameless female singer on the chorus is all gentle wistfulness. The “all I really wanted was a laptop” refrain is suitably ear-worming. It feels like a natural partner to the earlier ‘Shoulda Known,’ which manages to pull together this Ludwig-produced dreamland stuff and the new ALL CAPS ALL GROWN UP Gambino pubescent front.
Donald can actually sing, better than he can front really. He could be a perfectly good crooner if he wanted to- I don’t think he should because his ability to switch between singing and rapping is one of his finest assets but when he’s got space to mess around a bit, he’s a male Nicki Minaj as far as putting on a million hats goes. And anyone who can gently, soulfully murmur hear from all the fake rappers that I …sh*tted on, sh*tted on is the kind of popstar I want to see more of.
I’ve puzzled a lot over this mixtape, when I haven’t been rewinding the “home of the D-word where they sell that cake batt’urrrd bit of ‘Should’ve Known’ and wondering if I can lose 30lbs and scam an interview next time Glover’s in the country. I really railed against the first suppositions that Gambino was parodying gangster rap stereotypes but there’s enough nods to suppose he is. That’s a weird thing to do for something that’s declaring itself to be the first tape of the rest of your career, though and bits of it are deadly and rightly serious.
He’s carried on his intense interrogation of the relationship between race and culture in the US, which is where his most brilliant moments have always happened. A lot of the album though is (highly enjoyable) nonsense; not that that’s new, either but this doesn’t feel like the silliness of the past (as on Camp‘s ‘All The Shine; “I’m a role model, I am not these other guys/I rap about my d*ck and talk about what girls is fly/I know it’s dumb, that’s the f*cking reason I’m doing it/So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid sh*t?”) but more playing an empty role, where he doesn’t have the character of Balla Gambino fully developed enough to flesh them out; it’s still childish playacting but pretending not to be, which he feels too smart for. That said and ‘Make It Go Right’ aside, there’s nothing here that’s bad and there’s a lot of expansion on what he’s done previously and where it might go, when he gives himself the space to do it.
I wish there were fewer collaborations- the moments of comfortable transformation happen in the hardest, most painful bits of tracks like ‘Shoulda Known’ (‘Now I’m 1% I send most of it home/I wanna front but she gotta pay of her student loan’) and expose the more ludicrous bits of the first few tracks for what they are. He’s a great actor but he can’t dedicate himself to rap by just flipping the skill over.