Review Summary: Childish Gambino proves he isn't yet ready to join hip-hop's royalty
It seems unfair to judge an album by its name but for Childish Gambino, nee Community’s Donald Glover, it seems necessary. His introductory EP, I Am Just a Rapper, cemented his style as ironic- Gambino was writing for 30 Rock and doing stand-up at the time, but clearly wanted to be known just for his rapping chops. His second EP that introduced him to the masses, EP, showed us how truly non descript he can be at the time, choosing to blend in rather than to stand out. Now, with Royalty, Gambino tells us what he thinks he has collected: a circle of regal guest stars ranging from Ghostface Killah to other rising star Danny Brown. The question presented to the listener is: does Childish Gambino belong in the high court of hip-hop?
The simple and short answer to the question is no. Despite the strides he has made outside of rap, he produces more than half the songs on Royalty, he still hasn’t cemented his identity as a rapper. His flow is as inconsistent as ever: he still employs his confessional style breathiness that he debuted on Camp for his solo tracks but has adopted a new 2 Chainz inspired flow when he has guest stars to impress. As a consequence, rarely does Gambino impress when he has guest stars to compete with. It makes sense that he would be overshadowed by Wu affiliates like the RZA and Ghostface, but even unknown rapper Alley Boy has his way on closer “Real Estate.” In fact, one of the only guests who Gambino outshines is his mentor Tina Fey, who contributes an entirely worthless albeit decently funny 30 seconds to end the mixtape. Gambino’s problem on Royalty is twofold: not only did he invite far more talented rappers to guest verse, he did so on a tape that, according to him, was an effort to “cement his sound.” He has very little room to establish an identity for himself when he has to compete for attention 12 of the 18 songs he offers. The mixtape ultimately falters because Gambino is rarely the center of attention at perhaps the most critical time in his fledgling rap career.
It was a valiant effort of Gambino to try to change his flow, especially since he drew some criticism for his contrived punchline rap that constituted a majority of his past songs. Altering his entire delivery, which is a lot choppier and deliberate compared to his rather smooth cousin-of-Lil Wayne style. He still allows silly jokes to permeate his songs (Christina’s parents baby all I make is Milians, drop a new track/all blogs go to heaven) but does so without the charisma and timing that he had before. He has also developed off-putting habits like drawing out his R’s and fading in and out of verses with The Weeknd inspired vocal effects coupled with a sing-song delivery that irritates more than it excites. This effect plagues his solo tracks of Royalty, especially “Shoulda Known” which combines a half-baked Bob Marley reference and the obnoxious vocals to create a thoroughly unsatisfying song.
Although the flow alteration seems to be the extent of Gambino’s identity crisis, it goes far deeper than that. On “Silk Pillow” he explains that he used to rap about nothing, and still raps about nothing. This simplification seems to ignore a huge portion of Camp and even Royalty’’s opener “We Ain’t Them.” In the past, Gambino explored themes like familial troubles, bullying and even suicidal tendencies. To call all that “nothing” seems to show a huge gap between the contemplative nature of Camp and the braggadocio of Royalty. Gambino loves to mention how he “is in the 1%” and “can go around the globe and spend and make 100 G’s” but chooses to ignore the past. It’s simple: the Donald Glover we knew and heard about on Camp is dead. In Glover's place, his larger-than-life alter ego Childish Gambino reigns.
But, for all the issues and identity crises that Donald Glover has, the guest stars nearly make up for it. RZA, at his least coherent, offers a surprisingly entertaining verse over an excellent Hypnotic Brass Orchestra crafted beat and Bun B spits hard and fast on R.I.P. Even self-professed loser Beck appears to be back in the game with his appearances on “Silk Pillow” and “Bronchitis.” However, a guest verse from Ghostface Killah is thoroughly wasted due to a flimsy Myke Murda beat that sounds like it was made for Usher. The beats are an occasional problem on Royalty, but are more often than not highlights. Both Danny Brown and Gambino are shown up by skywlkr’s Toxic sampling beat and Boi-1da spices up an otherwise boring “Black Faces.” Even Gambino himself gets in on the producing game, ditching former producer Ludwig Goransson for the most part and his beats hold water for the most part. From an instrumental standpoint, this album is stellar. The problem lies in Gambino and certain guest stars (Gonage, Steve G. Lover, Swank) who can’t hold their own.
The fact about Royalty that is most telling though is that Childish Gambino rarely raps over the same beat that his guest stars do. The beat is left to change awkwardly in the middle of the songs which gets his verses off wrong-footed. It’s as though he doesn’t have confidence that he can rap on the beats he is given. It’s this same lack of confidence- in his flow, in his persona, in his own talent- that he tries to compensate for with his ludicrous claims of promiscuity and riches. Gambino has certainly reinvented himself, but as a self-aware guy who still isn’t confident enough in his rap ability to do something truly great. Rather unfortunate for someone who is ‘just a rapper.’