Review Summary: Culdesac is definitely a Childish album; but more than that, it’s a record full of growing pains.
Childish Gambino has made a name for himself (Other than being Donald Glover’s alter ego, that is) by making music filled with clever punch lines, countless pop culture references, and at times an almost childlike honesty. His lyrics on his more braggadocio-filled tunes have a sense of humor to them that would not be out of place in a group of middle school boys (Yes, Culdesac even contains a 69 joke). In other words, the name Childish is very fitting indeed. That said, Culdesac is in a way an album that is filled with growth from Glover (As he will be know for the remainder of this review). Culdesac sees Glover experiment more, varying his style from poppy croon fests (Got This Money), to witty brag fests (I Be On That, You Know Me), to introspective storytelling (Difference, The Last). Culdesac also contains much more of Glover’s own personal touch at production (Which will be addressed later) and is his most ambitious album yet in the beats department. Culdesac serves as a sort of prototype for Glover’s later and more mature works, and because of that it’s filled with experimentation. And as with many such experiments, there are highs and there are lows (And by lows I really mean lows).
One of the first things you will notice when listening to Culdesac is that Glover wants to be the next Kanye West. It just so happens that he also wants to be the next Lil Wayne, the next Drake, and maybe even the next Grizzly Bear. While coming from a more experienced rapper/producer this approach might be reason for excitement, with a still learning Glover at the helm, Culdesac becomes both overambitious and seemingly unfinished at the same time. What this means is that on Culdesac Glover tries his hand at everything, and while it may have been a big step for him as a developing musician, the album suffers from Glover being spread too thin across too many different styles that he still hasn't quite managed to fit
together just right.
Fans of Childish Gambino/Donald Glover know that he is an individual with incredibly diverse talents. He can act, do stand-up, even rap. Maybe this is why he feels he needs to protect his reputation by also being a producer and singer, despite having seemingly much less ability to do either. The production throughout is for the most part predictable and forgettable. That’s not to say it’s awful, just very lacking. And the singing; oh god, the singing. Hooks on songs like Hero and So Fly drag on much too long and showcase Glover’s worst lyrics, detracting from the much more enjoyable verses. Glover doesn't have the worst voice ever, and he does manage to hit most of the notes at least, but his emotionless singing definitely begins to grate on the listener’s eardrums quite quickly. It is clear that Glover’s voice is more suited to spitting raspy, brazen punch lines than crooning over love tunes.
All that isn't to say Culdesac doesn't have its redeeming qualities, however. Very few rappers are able to spit verses as witty and infectiously fun as Glover's. Songs like I Be On That, You Know Me, and Let Me Dope You leave the listener hard pressed to not crack at least one smile, a feat that can rarely be claimed by a rapper who compromises the intelligence of his lyrics as rarely as Glover. Furthermore, on the tracks where the production manages to carry Glover’s verses instead of subduing them, Glover manages to make surprisingly competent and catchy beats that are perfect for nodding along to (e.g. Let Me Dope You.)
The most disappointing part of Culdesac is how many times it comes so close to being something so much more. The lyrics on Difference lose a lot of their potential impact because they’re delivered almost entirely in monotone, causing many of Glover’s punch lines to fall flat. The half-rap half-singing at the end of I’m Alright sounds like Glover didn't even care enough to separate his flows from his melodies. The hook from Got This Money, easily the best one Glover delivers on Culdesac, becomes as annoying as the others after multiple listens. Put It In My Video could have potentially been the most fun song on the album if it didn't contain a chorus dumb enough to induce cringes. These Girls, which contains the best singing on the album, serves mostly as a glimpse of how much better Culdesac could have been if Glover had been more willing to hand over hook duties to more qualified singers. The Last contains some of Glover’s best emotional verses on the album, but suffers from a constant snare in the background that sounds as if it was made in five minutes by someone from the high school band.
All together, Culdesac’s flaws make it an album whose many strengths can easily be lost in its just as numerous flaws. What Culdesac at the core really lacks is true direction, with no discernible rhyme or reason to its mixture of sob stories and brag fests. That said, though it may not be the best output from Glover, fans of his style and fans of hip-hop and/or indie in general will find it worth a listen for those occasional moments where Glover shows why he’s such a beloved entertainer.
I Be On That
You Know Me
Let Me Dope You
*** It All