Music is an authoritarian art form. It's supposed to dominate you. Part of the magic of the listening experience is submitting yourself to it, letting it move you: the flailing of arms in your car, the bopping of head at work, the swaying of ass in the club. You're able to hear the artist without being heard by them. You're able to hear them be more compelling than you, hear them dominate you.
The dynamic power of music isn't news. But different genres use musical power in different ways. Alternative rap is essentially self-aware, i.e., it tries in many ways to awaken the listener, to render you more conscious. This kind of motive has the unfortunate side effect of possibly degenerating into pretentious bullshit (and sometimes does), but the goal itself is noble.
The best alt-rappers are thinking beyond entertainment. Others occupy a middle ground between entertainment and awareness. Childish Gambino (better known as Community actor Donald Glover) belongs to an emerging third category: rappers who simply want to get inside your head.
Gambino studied at the Kanye West Institute of Alterna-Rap. He makes poignant observations about his world, has a good ear for beats, is unfairly multifaceted. Like Kanye, he also boasts a killer combo of attitude and vulnerability. Both love penis jokes.
Gambino's fondness for penis jokes is a vestige of his other, other job: stand-up comedy. A puckish vibe weaves through all of his work — whether writing 30 Rock with Tina Fey, acting in the stellar sitcom Community, or performing skits with his sketch group Derrick Comedy.
His rapping is no joke, though. His Glassnote debut, Camp, captures the insecurities of a cultural oddball as he transitions through adulthood. Gambino by his own account is a misfit: not black enough for his white friends, too white for his black friends. "Culture shock at barber shops 'cause I ain't hood enough / We all look the same to the cops, ain't that good enough?" Gambino wonders on "Hold You Down." On the same song, he laments superficial cultural participation made easy by interactive technology: "You’re not not racist ’cause The Wire’s in your Netflix queue."
Simply put, Gambino is the biggest thing for black nerds since Carlton Banks. He's rapping about racial alienation in a way no other rapper has. Sure, there's a boatload of songs about racism and black on black violence, but Gambino is the only one speaking directly to that acne-plagued black geek in middle school who watches Archer and kickflips in his spare time.
How he translates these social issues on wax is remarkable, too. While some of his lines are zany and cringe-worthy, he boasts enough verbal dexterity to hold down an entire LP: double entendres, melodic singing, double-time flows, etc. It's in the imperative, retina-zapping desperation. It’s in the whip-smart rhymes that roll off his tongue with ease, hashtag and all, for 50 minutes. It’s also in the smart production.
Gambino co-produced Camp with Community composer Ludwig Göransson. The texture is unmistakably grand: fuzzy synths, tolling pianos, and raw, almost off-kilter drums, and vibrant chords. Even on the album's darker songs, color seeps in.
Göransson wisely keeps the album steady, pushing the keys out front, occasionally forsaking hi-hats altogether, and flavoring the staccato drums with shimmering strings, orchestral piano, and handclaps. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.
Meta-rappers tend to wear self-awareness as nothing more than fashion. Gambino's self-awareness, by contrast, is palpable. "I'm a mess. That don't rhyme with sh-t, it's just true." he concedes on "L.E.S." when his AA/BB rhyme pattern falls apart midsong.
You want hyperrealism? Check "That Power" where he sums up the concept of Camp, ditching metanarrative hooey for naked introspection. "This isn't a story of how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, mature, and sh-t," he says. "The truth is I got on the bus a boy and never got off the bus."
You want bragfest? Check "Bonfire" where he manufactures the perfect rap hit and dares you to guess at his agenda. Is he being satirical? Is he mocking Lil Wayne? And why does it sound so good? Ultimately, the joke is on you.
You never get the point that Gambino's aim is to entertain you or sell you any hopes. This undermines the standard artist-listener contract. Absent a clear agenda, Camp disarms even the most cynical of cynical bastards. This may be Gambino's only true agenda: to crawl inside your head. Is he a genius or a psycho? Who the hell knows?Best Songs
- "All the Shine"
- "Fire Fly"
- "That Power"