“Man, why does every black actor have to rap some?/I don’t know – all I know is I’m the best one…”
That’s not just a line from “Bonfire,” the leadoff single from Childish Gambino’s new Glassnote album, CAMP – it’s a mission statement. Childish Gambino is the rapper persona of Donald Glover, who doesn’t exactly have the stereotypical hip-hop backstory. Yes, we know Jay-Z started as a big-time drug dealer from the Brooklyn projects; Glover didn’t sell crack, though, but laughs – before he became known on the mic, he was a successful, college-educated writer, actor, and comedian who grew up in the suburbs.
Glover first bum-rushed the pop-culture conversation as a member of Derrick Comedy, the sketch-comedy troupe whose 2007 video sketch “Bro Rape” became one of the earliest YouTube viral sensations. “Bro Rape”’s multi-million views led Glover to a stint writing for “The Daily Show”; then, before he’d even completed his senior year at New York University, Glover secured a gig writing for the smash series “30 Rock.” His acting career blew up next: in 2009, Glover starred in Derrick Comedy’s debut film Mystery Team – a hit at the Sundance Film Festival – then was cast on NBC cult hit “Community” as ex-football-star-with-an-identity crisis Troy Barnes. His Hollywood triumphs, however, eclipsed Glover’s MC career. “I knew that because of ‘30 Rock’ and ‘Community,’ people will find out I’m a comedian before they know I do music,” says Glover. “But I’ve been doing music long before any of that.”
Indeed, as Childish Gambino – a name created randomly via an online Wu-Tang name generator – Glover has previously released four full albums (2002’sThe Younger I Get, 2004’s Sick Boi, 2008’s Poindexter, and 2010’sCuldesac), two mixtapes (2010’s I Am Just A Rapper series), and a 2011 EP featuring the Web phenomenon “Freaks And Geeks.” “My favorite thing is people are always like, ‘You’re the same person?’,” Glover explains. “There’s no difference between Donald Glover and Childish Gambino – they’re the same. I just want people to come at my music differently, because if CAMPwas a Donald Glover album they’d be like, ‘Okay, this is a joke record.’ But I don’t look at writing comedy as any different from writing raps.” As such, the first line Gambino spits on “Bonfire” works as both virtuoso MC metaphor and goofball humor: “I love bitches, I love pussy/I should be running PETA.” Still, Glover’s identity crisis comes up a lot. At his appearance at 2011’s Bonnaroo, he performed both in a music tent as Childish Gambino and a comedy tent under his government name; that split only reflects what’s happening in hip-hop culture itself, though. As Gambino/Glover wonders on CAMP’s standout track “All The Shine,” “Is there room in the game for a lame who rhymes?/Who wears short-shorts and makes jokes sometimes?”
“Rap has embraced its capacity for self-parody,” Glover notes. “The line between comedy and hip-hop is so blurred: Ludacris had a number-one hit that was exclusively puns from Austin Powers! Rappers are doing more interesting stuff in terms of comedy than comedians. Lil Wayne could be a comedy writer; Odd Future are straight-up theater kids, too, and people don’t get that. That’s why I’m able to do what I do. Old-school rap is like a three-camera sitcom with a laugh track telling where the joke is; single-camera comedy is more like, ‘Is this funny? I don’t know…’ Hopefully my album, much like Das Racist or Kanye, walks that fine line where you’re like, ‘Uh, I have to think about this...’ There’s a lyric on ‘Bonfire’ that goes ‘Brand new whip for these niggas, like slavery’ – some people laugh at that, but my mother does not!”
CAMP takes that tension to new heights. It’s a true rap album, but one that defies easy categorization – and revels in the resulting confusion. For one, Glover made a conscious choice to skip the usual parade of big name hip-hop producers: he and frequent collaborator Ludwig Göransson – acclaimed soundtrack composer for “Community” and films like 30 Minutes Or Less – wrote and recorded all the music on CAMP: yes, those are real violins on “All The Shine.” “I arranged those strings!” Glover exclaims. “I make my own beatsand I rap.” Other than Questlove providing drums on “That Power,” CAMP also remains intentionally free of rap-celeb features. “Questlove is technically my co-sign, but maybe rap has grown past the co-sign,” Glover says. “I thought, ‘You know what? No one else but me should be on this album.’ That move just seemed so anti-hip-hop, I had to do it!”
“I kind of like that everybody is waiting to hate my album,” Glover adds. “It’s going to take people off guard.” For sure, CAMP proves provocative even down to its title. “I was trying to come up with something that’s as far away from the streets as possible,” he says. “It’s partially a race thing – like, ‘black people don’t camp.’ Going to camp is also when you experience real life away from your parents for the first time. Minorities and gay people use camp, too, to make fun of the majority; plus, I wanted to deal with the whole ‘if you’re not black enough, you’re gay’ thing.” CAMP doesn’t stop there in tweaking expectations. While there’s no shortage of bangers like the lyrical, gritty-snare-driven “Backpackers” or the clubtastic anthem “Heartbeat”, there’s also the showtune-musical chorus of “Outside” or the extended spoken-word monologue of “That Power” to freak the musical context.
“I sound weird, like ‘nigger’ with a hard ‘r’,” Gambino admits on “Bonfire.” Likewise, Glover has been famed for rhyming over indie grooves via the likes of Animal Collective, Sleigh Bells, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, and Sufjan Stevens. “While you niggas masturbate, I’m in that Ariel Pink,” he rapped on “Freaks And Geeks”; on CAMP’s “Firefly,” he memorably claims to be “the only black kid at a Sufjan concert.” As such, tracks like “Outside” seem as influenced by electronica and Brian Wilson as they are by, say, Just Blaze. “Questlove has been pushing me, saying ‘Black nerds need a voice, and you’re it,’” Glover laughs. “We talked about calling what I do ‘black nerd culture.’ Some people call it ‘blipster,’ which at first I was against: what does a blipster like that a hipster doesn’t? Jay-Z is really the biggest nerd ever! But I’m just glad people have a name for what people like me, Lil B, and Tyler, The Creator do; we’re just black kids with laptops, except now it’s cool to be black and ride a skateboard. This is the first generation where it’s okay to be from the suburbs. I don’t feel like a fuckin’ weirdo anymore for listening to Wilco and having brown skin. I want to be the LCD Soundsystem of rap – at the same time, they’re playing ‘Bonfire’ on Hot 97, which is all I’ve ever wanted.”
The real lyrical skills and serious flow on display throughout CAMP confound any hipster/comedian stereotyping, however. As an MC, Gambino sidesteps pigeonholes while exploring the album’s various themes: race and identity, “realness,” being on the outside looking in, and hard work – as well as the various pleasures of Asian women and wearing short-shorts. Sometimes he uses vicious punch lines that could come from a veteran battle rapper (“Niggas breath stank/All they do is shit talk”); other times he’s just silly, warping the current trend of “hashtag raps” à la Drake/Big Sean to their absurd extreme(“You can fuckin’ kiss my ass/Human Centipede”). He’s also not afraid to contradict himself (“I am a role model/I am not these other guys/I rap about my dick and talk about which girls is fly”) or break your heart with confessional stories from growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (“I used to get called ‘Oreo’ and faggot/I used to get more laughs when I got laughed at”; “This one kid said something that was really bad/He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad/I think that’s kinda sad – mostly because a lot of black kids think they should agree with that”). Other times, Gambino just dazzles with insane, complex pop-culture references (“It’s 400 Blows to these Truffaut niggas”). Even when Gambino’s dissing, his truth is so brutal it’s hard not to laugh, like when he says “You’re not ‘not racist’ cuz ‘The Wire’ is in your Netflix queue” on “Hold You Down.” “I don’t want this album to be pointing a finger,” Glover says. “Just be aware. In the song ‘Backpackers,’ there’s the line ‘Rap is for real blacks’ – that’s the point of the album. It’s like Louis CK, or Chris Rock. The first time I heard Chris Rock, I was like ‘Holy shit! It’s like I’m laughing at a sermon!’ The reason I got into comedy and rap was that amazing feeling when someone says something that makes you go ‘Wow, I feel uncomfortable!’”
CAMP represents just the beginning of the ambitions Glover has for the Childish Gambino movement – as he clarifies on “Hold You Down,” “I won’t stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.” Glover’s acting career continues its rise – “Community” just began its third season, and he’s appearing in the upcoming Muppets movie, as well as indie comedy The To-Do List alongside Aubrey Plaza from “Parks And Recreation” (“I’m the guy who eats her out”); as well, his first solo comedy special, WEIRDO, will air on Comedy Central on November 20th. Despite those successes, Glover claims “music has kind of taken over my life so much. It’s weird: I don’t think standup needs me as much as music does. Black kids come up to me and tell me ‘It feels good to have someone saying you’re not alone.’ In the same way Kanye never thought for a second that him being the biggest star in the world is crazy, I never thought it was crazy that I wrote for ‘30 Rock.’ I was always supposed to be this – I’m here for a reason. A lot of people fight against what I’m doing, but if we don’t have that struggle, what are we? Struggle is part of the black experience. But then I just like to have fun and rap about bitches and Asian girls. I don’t know when to stop. I don’t know when to shut up!”