In the multi-year hip hop calendar, 2011 is the Year of Self-Conscious, Ironic Regurgitation of Themes. The brooding musings of Tyler the Creator and Drake’s continuous omphaloskepsis are fun, but with the release of Childish Gambino’s first commercially produced album Camp, listeners should question if this new crop of artists is simply pulling from a Tumblr authored by a Williamsburg-based Kanye collective.
The suburban angst continues to be in vogue with the newest class of social media-driven rappers, and resonates with, well, middle-class suburban kids. There are hopeful hints from Donald Glover, the name behind CG and actor in the popular sitcom “Community,” that he is making a striking commentary on the trend. But, even taking into account that the project is monikered via a Wu-Tang name generator and that Glover very obviously chooses the lyrical and thematic hyperboles littering his tracks – he holds a BFA from NYU – it falls short of expectations.
That being said, Camp is eminently listenable and taken at face value will likely rack up a following of devotees. Although Glover does not push into new territory as hoped for by fans of his previous work, the album succeeds, mainly by tapping into the electric production and delivery currents Kanye West fed into the middle-class themes first explored by Run-D.M.C. in the ’80s.
The lead single, “Bonfire,” is everything fans have come to love in Gambino. It drives like an early ‘Ye anthem, Glover flowing over the top like Weezy, except with a lyrical tightness that will make entire dorm floors reconsider picking up English as a (second) major. Yet, it also shares the same tired tropes present in Gambino’s previous work and seen on essentially every track of Camp: a taste for Asian women, glamrap references to the increasing discomfort he feels with the riches brought by his newly found fame, and emotional scars from growing up a “blerd” (“black nerd”).
Several tracks also serve as odes to the “haters” in the music community. In “All The Shine” he writes “My nigga, like, ‘I’d get you MTV if I could, man, / but Pitchfork only likes rappers who crazy or hood, man,” exemplifying his distaste for “haters” in the form of music professionals. Pitchfork Magazine has not given Childish Gambino more than a passing mention, despite high praise elsewhere.
Instead of taking the occasional swipe at the lack of appreciation he has received, Glover would have been well-advised to let all of his frustration be seen from “Backpackers.” A brilliantly produced track, Glover does an exceptional job showcasing his unique vocal delivery while responding to any criticisms leveled his way by turning them around on the industry and culture itself.
Songs like “Backpackers” make it difficult to directly attack Glover’s reliance on the same thematic elements, because he continues to eloquently elevate his own personal issues to a larger stage. He underhandedly calls out issues of homophobia, sexism and classism in both hip hop and “hipster” cultures in a way others have not.
Fans of Childish Gambino will find Camp to be a rehashing of everything they love in Donald Glover’s side project. Some, including many reviewers, will not rave simply because he has not created something distinct. However, it’s important to keep in mind this is technically his freshman album, and not every person has heard the Gospel according to Donald. His Revelations are all but guaranteed.
3.5 out of 5 stars