Review Summary: Filled with contradictions and unfulfilled promises, Childish Gambino's debut delivers on a far shallower level than he clearly intended.
Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, sees himself as a game-changer in rap music; a voice for the black kids who got bullied in high school and an inspiration to people who grew up like him. On his debut full-length, Camp
, he tries to make that a uniting theme in an album that has at least three of them: There's the summer camp motif, echoed in the song titles and the spoken word ending to "That Power" (which is far less effective when you see in the liner notes that it wasn't written by him). There's the aforementioned "my life was so tough when I was a kid, and now I'm inspiring everyone" motif, especially in "Outside", "Fire Fly", and "All the Shine". While these two are compatible and could have made for an excellent record, the comedian and rap student in Donald Glover couldn't resist adding a third, which is "I am awesome, great at rapping, and get laid so much". This muddies the album to the degree that, while remaining enjoyable, it fails to affect the listener in the way he clearly intended.
To give him credit, he does acknowledge this in "All the Shine", a song that features one of producer Ludwig Gorransson's excellent hooks and choruses:
"I’m a role model, I am not these other guys
I rap about my dick and talk about what girls is fly
I know it’s dumb, that’s the ***ing reason I’m doing it
So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid ***?"
Unfortunately this comes only a couple seconds after he claims he "went with realness instead", contradicting himself and assuming that the fact that he references it justifies itself. So much of the album is meta that a lot of songs devolve into "people hate on me because I do this and this", and the message he's trying to convey in the first place gets lost in the constant self-defense. In songs like "Backpackers", a fairly straightforward track where Glover complains about rap elitists who hate on him for three minutes, the references to himself are so on the nose that the listener is just left considering whether they're true rather than empathizing with Glover.
Empathizing with Glover is a tricky thing on this album, because he so frequently skips between "my hood life was so hard", "fame is difficult and sometimes I can't recognize myself", and "I have SO much more sex than you and it's awesome and I'm the best". Tracks like "Bonfire" and "Heartbeat" are some of the shallowest on the album because they're such obvious singles that don't at all fit the image Donald Glover's clearly trying to put himself in. Essentially, Childish Gambino wants to be every character in rap music, but doesn't understand that being aware of your music's flaws doesn't automatically fix them. Camp
is cluttered with too much and too devoid of any consistency or thematic integrity to be the classic album Glover thinks he's created. It's a solid album. The rhymes are good - evidence of his ability to write and improvise comedy - the production (with the exception of the baffling "Heartbeat") is a constant highlight, turning "Fire Fly" into one of the best songs on the album, and proving Ludwig Goransson can do more than just score Community
. While some lines fall flat on their face, especially in "Bonfire", and some of the pop-culture referencing is lazy and unnecessary, the songs are generally quite good. The problem lies in the self-importance of the album and Donald Glover's attempt to cast himself as sympathetic but successful and womanizing lead inconsistently. Filled with contradictions and unfulfilled promises, Childish Gambino's debut delivers on a far shallower level than he clearly intended.
Hold You Down