Rap music is clever, self-proclaiming, and blatant. Indie music is subtle, vague and esoteric. Donald Glover loves them both, and his new album Camp (released under his stage name, Childish Gambino) is quivering in this tension. The young writer-turned-comedian-turned-actor-turned-rapper’s first album under a label (Glassnote) isn’t a taming of this dissonance —it’s a harnessing.
Fans were expecting a lot — Gambino has been pointing towards the left field bleachers for some time now. From Culdesac and EP respectively: “To all my fans who sayin’ Donald Glover bout to blow, just give me 6 months so you can say I told you so”, “Running the game. Fuck am I sayin’? Running the earth. Give me a month.” It’s unclear what he’s trying to achieve with Camp, but it’s clear that he’s planning on achieving it in hurry; “Aiming for the throne Jay and Ye said to watch that; they ask me what I’m doing and I said I’m stealing rock back” “I’m not stopping till they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.” He not only acknowledges that he’s crossing cultural boundaries and defying genre norms — he’s obsessed with the thought.
The stark contrast of his musical influences can sometimes be off-putting, and his conflicted musical sensibility can make for some jarring transitions in tone. “What’s the point of rapping if you can’t be yourself huh? That’s why I come first like my cell phone.” In his comedic career (Daily Show, writer; 30 Rock, writer; Community, actor), Glover has relied on his cleverness to connect with his audience, and the spillover of his wit into the dark and personal themes of Camp can give his songs a confused tone. But, as Glover often reminds us, life is a confusing flux of emotion, and the most honest narrative is unlikely to be the most intelligible one — particularly for a life in transition. This catch-22 is explicitly discussed on “All the Shine” — “I know it’s dumb that’s the fucking reason I’m doing it/So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid shit?/Or is it real shit? Because sometimes that stupid shit is real shit.”
But that is not to say there aren’t discernable themes in Camp. Echoing the sentiments of his Nov. 15-release-rival Drake (to whom he has often been compared), Glover often expresses his uneasiness with fame (“I always wanted to get picked on the cool team/but alone is exactly how I should be”). This periodic bashfulness points towards his indie roots, but his clever cheek reminds listeners that Camp is, above all, a rap album. Lines like “Made the beat then murdered it: Casey Anthony,” “Uh, yeah I'm killin' you, step inside the lion's den/ Man I'm HOV if the 'O' was an 'I' instead,” are self-endorsement and grounds for that endorsement rolled into one.
His compulsive anger gives the songs an urgency – but leads to some less-than-compelling lyrics. “Heartbeat”: “I’m a jerk but your dude is a real dick/I read his posts on your wall and I feel sick/ He ain’t cool he ball and all that/but he’s just a fake nigga who blog in all caps.” Contrasted with what normally motivates a rapper’s angst, Glover’s problems often seem startlingly bourgeois. However, to middle class kids without many ‘real’ problems (i.e. survival), Glover’s tenacity is redemptive, because the truth is that everyone’s got issues. From “Outside” – “The truth is we still struggle on a different plane/ 7 dollars an hour, WIC vouchers: it’s all the same.” As a listener it’s easy to sympathize with his predicament. He’s fighting an uphill battle and he knows it: trying to stay simultaneously honest and compelling, when honestly, he doesn’t have too many problems in his life – at least not anymore. On “Fire Fly” he reflects, “Being me isn’t half as hard as it used to be.”
Camp’s production is either uneven or diversified, but definitely not boring. There are musically subtle songs featuring piano, strings, choral background singers while others are synth-heavy and pulsing. But this variation does not come at the cost of cohesion; Camp is skewered end-to-end by Glover’s unfiltered, in-your-face honesty. Whether he’s screaming at you or contemplating out loud, it’s clear that he means every word.
The Outro of the album, coming at the end of “That Power” is an absolute highlight. Glover recites a short story about an epiphanic experience of betrayal as a 13-year-old on a bus ride home from summer camp. The experience is apparently the grounds for his artistic policy of total non-restraint. “I told you [a girl he “like-liked”] something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle-man, make it all for everybody, always. Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.” As an artist, Donald Glover can be brash, thoughtful, trite or insightful; however, he is never dishonest.
On Camp, Glover refreshingly demonstrates that in a cultural era so saturated by contrived expression by artists and the consumers’ corresponding skepticism, it is possible to put out truly honest art and get a following for it.