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January 19, 2012

Album Review: CHILDISH GAMBINO - Camp

I only learned of this, Childish Gambino character in mid November when his album dropped in the US and my good friend, Gillis in Albuquerque gave me a heads up on this ‘comedians’ musical foray.  Most are familiar with, Donald Glover through his role on NBC’s TV show, ‘Community’, but under the rap moniker of, Childish Gambino (created through a Wu-Tang name generator), he released his first commercial release, ‘Camp’ on November 15th 2011. Numerous actors and actresses have attempted to make the transition from acting and performing in front of the camera to a life behind the mic, only to fail wretchedly. There are however a small band who enjoyed elements of success in acting to music transition - Jamie Foxx, Drake, J-Lo etc. It’s already safe to say, we can now add, Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) to that list with, ‘Camp’ a fine piece of work.

In the thirteen track album, Childish Gambino works to address criticism that he has received from his “haters” on topics ranging from not being “black” or “’hood” enough to being referred to as “gay” and “soft” due largely to his career as a comedian and actor. Instead of striving to fit in with the rap/hip hop community, he talks to his differences from the pack and embraces them to his credit and great advantage. Quite refreshing when you consider some of the lyrics and content of mainstream rap, a lot of which probably better fits the comedy world from which Gambino has risen.

The opening track on ‘Camp’, ‘Outside’ establishes one of the most admirable aspects this album from the very outset - Childish Gambino is able to touch on a wide range of subject matters ranging from family and relationships to race and growth of character. All of this while remaining inside the confines of the album theme - summer camp. He addressed these topics on this track with superb lyrics and guile. ‘Fire Fly’ that follows is probably as close to mainstream as, Gambino will’ like a step back to old school boom box rap. It is home to a glowing, synth beat similar to that of, Kanye West in ‘808’s and Heartbreak’. Even his frustrations are decidedly more pop in rhymes like “These black kids want something new, I swear it/Something they wanna say but couldn’t cause they embarrassed/All I do is make the stuff I wanna write/Reference shows I wanna watch, reference girls I wanna bite.”

Opening with an air siren, ‘Bonfire’ is the first track I had heard from, Gambino and is also the first release from this album. It is one of the tracks that he produced (more than half of the album fall under this realm). It has a raw aggression about it that puts me in mind of, Lil Wayne or, Busta Rhymes and this aggression is met with an onslaught of guitar and snare drums throughout. ‘Bonfire’ contains a raucous beat consisting of loud electric guitars and an air horn that is sure to get you hyped when Gambino spits heavy hitting punch lines like “You know these rapper dudes talk shit, start killin’/Fuck that, got goons like an arch-villain/I’m from the South, ain’t got no accent, don’t know why/So this rap is child’s play, I do my name like Princess Di”. It’s the ideal lead single from, Gambino and a fine blend of his attitude and charm underlining his fondness for unconventional beats and referencing a glut of pop culture.

As an actor, Donald Glover plays a foolish character on, ‘Community’ and was previously a member of the comedy cast, ‘Derrick Comedy’. He addresses both his past and his peculiarity on “All The Shine” when he inquires, “Is there room in the game/ For a lame who rhymes?/ Who wears short-shorts/ And makes jokes sometimes?” He is comfortable within himself despite being ‘different’. The music industry is laden with people who alter appearances and attitude to fit in with social expectations, but his music comes over like a breath of fresh air and his liberation make for appealing and enjoyable songs. ‘Letter Home’ is certainly in the lighter of, Gambino’s ensemble.  His voice fits this one like a glove and it’s perfectly produced. ‘Heartbeat’ is one of my favourites from the album. It is extremely catchy with its solemn sounding piano tune developing into a synth-induced electronic beat accompanied by buoyant drum beats. This is yet another illustration of the diversity of Camp’s production. ‘Backpackers’ is a simple sounding track with warbled backing lyrics and a sound comparable to Jay-Z’s, ‘Hard Knock Life”. It’s clear that, Gambino has little time for backpackers. 

Living in New York city and enjoying this particular part of town, ‘L.E.S.’ is an enjoyable ode to the hipster mecca of NYC, the lower east side of Manhattan. People have said that, Gambino isn’t hood at all and he proves this here by referencing the hipster scene as opposed to the streets. He paints a very accurate picture of the neighbourhoods’ growing population of young people that think they are too cool for school in lyrics like “you’s a hipster bitch/but not in the lame way/like you aint living out in BK/like you aint working on a screenplay/like your baby daddy aint a DJ/like she listens to old freeway/cuz everybody listens to biggie, but she different”.

On a few tracks, Gambinio addresses the criticism on whether he is “black enough” where he shares how “This one kid said somethin’/ That was really bad / He said I wasn’t really Black/ Because I had a dad.” This track deals with the subject of racism in a very aware manor when Gambino delivers honest lyrics that speak for them self. Again props for production here with the track starting out with a begins with a positive piano, followed by a well orchestrated handclap, complemented forty five seconds in when the quiet drum that kicks in. ‘Kids’ slows things down a touch and is one of the few ‘romantic’ tracks on the album on which he sings on the chorus – “if we were kids/I'd want to give you everything that you would want/those other boys/they gave you toys, but all they wanna do is/keep up, keep up, keep up, keep up” over a scintillating violin instrumental.

‘You See Me’ hosts another of the popular topics on this album…Gambino’s fetish for Asian girls, “Forget these white girls / I need some variation / Especially if she very Asian”. The track is of the drum heavy variety with the bass turned up to the maximum. ‘Sunrise’ is possibly the weakest on the album from a lyrical perspective, but hosts misty synth, clapping in abundance, and a grand chorus sample that embraces the power of pure music over vocals.
On the last track of the album, “The Power,” he tells the story of his bus trip home from summer camp as a kid. In the story, he shares his feelings of a girl that he liked and had spent the summer with at camp. She then goes on to share everything he said with her friends, who naturally make fun of him as they exit the bus. He spills how that experience aided him in learning to tell everybody his secrets, so nobody can go around gossiping, because everyone already knows. Home to gigantic pounds, the track’s most appealing quality is the ending monologue - “I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit. But that’s not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven’t.”

Childish Gambino’s first commercial foray highlights that he isn’t just an actor rapping for kicks. He’s been taking music seriously for years, and ‘Camp’ goes a long way in displaying Glover’s ability as a rapper. By embracing his differences, he crafts lyrically unique tracks…through his effort, he has managed to establish himself as a rising artist in the genre in which he now operates. From a production standpoint, the album is all over the shop, however it works in, Gambino’s favour in some sense, as it allows him to exhibit his versatility as a rapper. In many respects, the production of this album is as diverse as the lyrical content and themes. No matter what mood you find yourself in, there is a song or two for everyone in this offering. Hungry for more and hope, Gambino never does get off the bus. Rating 8/10.