Caught Sleeping: On Childish Gambino’s “Camp”

Because I like to be angry, most days when I’m home at noon on weekdays getting ready to go to work or put in an afternoon of entertainment for you ungrateful wretches, I turn the channel to the televised monstrosity that is New Music Live on Much, [formerly Muchmusic, Canada’s would-be version of MTV.  Extra on the “would-be” considering they’d love to stop playing music altogether but their original CRTC application from the 80’s precludes them from ditching videos completely]. Filling the 5.00 p.m. hole vacated by the request show Much on Demand, the show features a trio of beautiful people blathering inanely about the usual pressing concerns of the coming generation, like who’s following who on Twitter and how statutory rape is aces if the woman’s a fox [this actually happened].

So imagine my surprise one afternoon last spring when I saw this as I was cleaning the bathroom.

“Huh,” I said to myself. “Donald Glover from Community‘s a rapper.”  I liked the video, and it was a pressurized blast of fresh air on that godawful show [having never seen it again, I suspect whoever snuck it on has since been fired]. But the beat was a little…Garage Band for me, and I thought his raps were a little busy.  I mean, that’s to be expected, here’s a guy who needs to throw down to shake whatever impressions people who know him from his stand-up and acting career might have, but I find when rappers to do that it’s like they make this verbal stir-fry, just taking everything they have, tossing it in a pan and tossing it around for four minutes.  Makes for a good listen once, but you don’t really want to revisit it. Just my opinion.

Last weekend found me kicking around the house by myself again, so I started perusing new music on the iTunes hip-hop chart, and saw Mr. Glover’s name show up again, with this song.

Well. That’s a bit of a different beast, isn’t it?  While it still skews to the busy side a bit, the horrorcore accents on the track intrigued me enough to give the full album a perusal.

Not just one of the best rap albums I’ve heard in recent memory, Childish Gambino’s Camp is also one of if not the most thought-provoking.

Now, you can level the criticism that Glover only ever raps about two things: girls, and blackness. One of those topics is played out, and one of those topics is fascinating.  When you weigh them against each other, the fascinating easily cancels out the mundane to present a listener with something they’ve never heard before.

I’ve never really heard a rapper  address the struggle of being a black kid who isn’t “black enough.”  Outkast might have let their freak flag fly, but it took Andre three albums before he started rocking football pads and safari hats; it was Braves jerseys and Cadillacs before that.  So for Glover to come out and talk about his experience  being the only black kid at his white high school while the black kids in his neighbourhood are calling him a faggot, is not only a unique approach, it’s a brave and essential one. Album opener “Outside,” tackles all of these issues head on while giving the listener insight to who Childish is and where he comes from.  The writer Toure already examined many of the things that make “Outside” such a powerful song, but I want to also highlight one lyric in particular:

And I just wanna fit in, but nobody was helping me out,
They talking hood shit and I ain’t know what that was about,
Cause hood shit and Black shit is super different.

Toure called that line “one of the most important lyrics in hip-hop this year,” and it serves as the entire album’s thesis, a theme he returns to over and over again, this notion of “realness,” and what’s “real,” to him not aligning with what the greater rap community considers “real,” and how back-asswards that is. Because black =/= hood, hood == poor, and that’s a crucial difference, a matter of class more than race. The song’s second verse addresses the resentment Glover’s extended family has towards him and his parents for getting barely out of the poverty they haven’t yet escaped, with a powerful plea to his cousin to not be defined by what the world demands a young, black man has to be.  It’s a hell of a song, so powerful I often skip it when listening to the album, because it’s almost too much to take, in a way.

From there, the album moves to the bouncy triumph of “Fire Fly,” as Gambino comes to terms with his success while still struggling with the expectations of rap culture [no live shows cause I can’t find sponsors / for the only black kid at a Sufjan concert], to Bonfire’s sinister snarl, to the three-movement highlight of the album, “All the Shine,” “Letter Home,” and “Heartbeat,” where you find out that, oh, you know, dude’s got a falsetto worthy of The Weeknd, no big deal.

I’ve been trying to figure out if the album slouches in its second half or if it’s just a matter of sequencing, if those three songs back-to-back are just so good it’s nigh-impossible for the rest of the songs to live up to the standard they set.

It’s not a perfect album, by any means.  Some of the rhymes fall flat [you’re a fake fuck like a Fleshlight. Um, no], some of the beats are skip-worthy [the Fisher Price xylophone tinkles of “Kids”] and I feel like because he puts so much of himself out there so consistently, going through all 13 songs can feel exhausting by the end of the album.

But in a world where rap albums are typically barely more than a collection of singles from a cadre of producers-for-hire, stitched together with a few immature skits, Glover takes the opposite lane, handling all the beatmaking himself and featuring no guest appearances to make for the sort of unified effort that is woefully infrequent in the world of hip-hop.

Plus, Pitchfork hated it, which is really all the proof Glover or you should ever need to know that the album is something special.


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