Childish Gambino – Camp [Review]

There’s always something immensely satisfying seeing an artist develop. Nothing really compares to watching a young artist slowly come into their own lane from the very first mixtape to their first debut album in stores. We’ve seen it with Lupe, Drake, J. Cole, B.o.B., and Wale. We’re seeing it with Mac Miller, Yelawolf, Big Sean, and now a twenty-eight year old NYU graduate from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Childish Gambino is the moniker of Donald Glover, who known for, among other things, writing for 30 Rock, critical acclaim in Community (Save Community! #sixseasonsandamovie), and almost getting an audition for the role of Spider-Man. Glover took a very traditional approach to getting in the music business: he crafted together a couple mixtapes, released them for free online, went on tour, and finally signed with indie label Glassnote Records, becoming the first Hip-Hop act on a roster full of Mumford & Sons, The Temper Trap, and Phoenix. As an artist, he’s been embraced by a few but shunned by most, being seen as an actor first and musician second. With his Sign-Up Tour this year coinciding with the release of Camp, his first official record, Gambino hopes to change that for good. Let’s see if the kid has what it takes.

NOTE: All songs are produced by Childish Gambino & Ludwig Goransson

1. Outside
The album starts off with a slower track with heavy drums in the background that really sets the mood of the album. Childish’s work has been at times dark and at times lighter, but this track immediately pushes the latter trait, allowing us to absorb his past over the dismal, tribal atmosphere, which lightens at the end of the song. CG definitely shows up lyrically on the track, it’s the best I’ve heard him spit before this album came out, period:

It’s weird, you think that they’d be proud of him
but when you leave the hood they think that you look down on ‘em
truth is we still struggle on a different plane
7 dollars an hour, with vouchers, it’s all the same
facebook messaging hopin’ that could patch up shit
but all they get now is, “can your son read this script?

It’s definitely the perfect way to start off the album and I’d dare say is more polished than all of his work combined thus far.

2. Fire Fly
This is a much more lighthearted track than the last one, with a much more laid-back vibe. I wasn’t really too thrilled about the hook; it sounds way too radio, but it works for this type of song because it fits with the overall sound. I’ve heard people say this song sounds like west coast G-Funk; I’m not too sure about that, but it definitely is a much more laid-back cut. CG gets ’em again with lines like: “It’s hard to make Hov the footsteps you follow in/Especially when your niggas look like Carlton”. I feel like what makes this track great is not a lot of rappers would be able to make this song work for them, but Gambino does, which is admirable. Solid track, not my favorite though.

3. Bonfire
This was the first track released from the album a couple months ago. It was recorded in the same vein as the brilliant “Freaks And Geeks” was when that hit the internet back in the spring: it’s nothing but two long verses showing off how lyrical this kid is. At first, I didn’t like this song as much as I loved “Freaks And Geeks”: the beat is much darker and the punch-lines aren’t as eye-opening the first listen. But on repeat listens, this song is questionably superior and just shows his growth as an artist. The same guy who was able to put together references to Freaks And Geeks, E.E. Cummings, Black Swan, and Bush is now able to put topics as divisive as Casey Anthony, Invader Zim, PETA, Human Centipede, and Princess Diana all in one song. I’m not even going to bother quoting lyrics; I’d have to quote the whole song. This is definitely a stand out track and rewards repeated listens.

4. All The Shine
This is my personal favorite song on the album. I love the way the beat builds from a simple drum kick to the synth explosion, violin and piano we get on the track. I still find it hard to believe that Glover produced this entire album. Lyrically, he doesn’t pull a “Bonfire” on the track, but he does rap insightfully on the track:

I know it’s dumb, that’s the fucking reason I’m doing it
So why does everyone have a problem with talking stupid shit?
Or is it real shit?/Cause sometimes that stupid shit is real shit
Like when you make out with your best friend’s baby sis
You know, the one with short hair you used to babysit? (See, that’s not even right)

The hook is infectious; CG is probably one of the only rappers who could sing on every track and I wouldn’t have a problem with it. Top to bottom, this definitely one of the best songs on this album.

5. Letter Home
This serves as the outro to the last track. Childish sings on this one over the same beat about the one who got away. It’s a decent sounding interlude, which separates the lighter, poppy sounding tracks to darker tracks of the album. Oh yeah, it gets darker than this.

6. Heartbeat
This was the first song I just outright wasn’t really feeling, and that’s not really the fault of the track, but kind of a personal thing. Most of the other people I’ve talked to about this album have proclaimed this one to be their favorite, ironically. A much darker beat combines a couple of my least favorite things into one track: Auto-Tune and techno dubstep. I understand the appeal of both, but it’s just not the kind of music that I enjoy. Later on though, I found myself digging this song a lot more; it’s definitely radio-ready and catchy. Still, Cheezy definitely shows up on the track and its and interesting addition to the album. Again, this type of track shows a versatility that most rappers just don’t have.

7. Backpackers
This is very Hip-Hop track that is meant to show off lyrical prowess, and it does just that:

I got a girl on my arm dude, show respect
Something crazy and asian, Virginia Tech
She too fine, I do dimes
If not that, I’m walking around with two fives
Change my ID for the cops, it’s not enough yet
Black male in short shorts, I’m double suspect.

One thing I like about Gambino is he shows a willing detachment from the Hip-Hop culture while still asking for acceptance. He’ll come on a track with “take me as I am” type subject matter with the dopest lyrics and yet at the end of it all he’s still ironically put forward the same Hip-Hop stereotypes. This kind of paradox is often seen with “gimmick” type rappers like Charles Hamilton, Lil’ B, and OFWGKTA, but CG does it better than all of them by putting the whole package together much more smoothly.

8. L.E.S.
I definitely think it’s time to note the production on this album: it’s fantastic. The song switches from violins to synth pretty much un-noticeably, and surprises every listen. Lyrically, again it’s a monster:

Watchin’ lames handle their fame
They bang any broad with bangs
In a band with an animal name
Hannibal came drinkin’ a handle of Jameson
Anallin’ anyone is the plan of the evening.

Damn. Is this an Eminem album? The hook is infectious and reminiscent of those old Gambino songs about girls, but much better executed here than I’ve heard him in the past. Another winner.

9. Hold You Down
Maybe I praised CG’s singing too early; his voice damn near cracks in the beginning, which kind of distracts from the song in the beginning, but thankfully it rebounds from there. The hook, which he also sings on, sounds a lot better with track in the back. This is a much more personal song, about stereotypes and how they affect blacks:

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 kind of sad
Mostly since a lot of blacks think they should agree with that

Glover has repeatedly discussed his struggles with the way society puts him in a box, but it’s put on display here as a challenge to move on from those ideas. Great.

10. Kids (Keep Up)
This is a really consistent album, that’s all I have to say nine tracks into a twelve track album. All the songs sound similar enough to be on the same album without a hitch, but all have their own distinct sounds that help that stand out. Musically and lyrically, Childish hasn’t given us anything less than brilliance thus far on the album. On this one in particular, I enjoyed the slow drumming and violins the background. The singing on this one is perfectly suited for the song; it helps bring the song to the next level. The lyrics are on point as always:

Her name Mercedes but she push a Brown Focus
And she’s doing coke in front of me, but act like I don’t notice
‘There any breakage in that Trojan?’
She see what she wanna see
So I make her take Plan B right in front of me
Women talk shit on men like all day
But it’s Pete Wentz, goes both ways.

Fantastic song.

11. You See Me
It’s a little late in the album, but this is the banger. This song has what has got to be one of the greatest hooks in the history of Hip-Hop: “I’m on my ballin’ each and everyday/Asian girls everywhere: UCLA” . Before this album dropped, YouTube was flooded with videos of this song performed at concerts, and for good reason: it’s a monster. It’s another song I can’t post the lyrics to because there are too many quotables in it. Just listen to the third verse, and you’ll be a believer.

12. Sunrise
The mood of the album definitely picks up here. The beat sounds like some of the older songs he did for EP; I’m sure this would have fit on there without any trouble, but it’s a lot more polished and instrumentally advanced. Cheezy’s flow on this one is so smooth, if you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss the lyrics. I enjoyed this song a lot, and of course it’s still beefed up lyrically: “That’s 20/20 hindsight/My shit be Jackson, Jordan, Bolton, Keaton, Tyson: 5 Mikes”, and “Money equals freedom, I’ve wanted this since a three-year old/I’ve seen it all, like I’m John Mayer’s penis hole”. The hook is very infectious here, and it builds up nicely to the conclusion of the album. Great song.

13. That Power
The album reaches it’s emotional conclusion with this eight-minute finale. Childish launches into the final two verses of the album with even more fervor than he’s had this entire album:

Uncool, but lyrically I’m a stone cold killer
So its 400 blows to these Truffaut niggas
Yeah, now thats the line of the century
Niggas missed it, too busy
They’re lying about penitentiary
Man, you ain’t been there
Nigga you been scared
And I’m living single like Sinclair

The album ends with an almost four minute spoken word about Childish’s encounter with a girl at camp at the age of 13, and how, after telling her he liked her, she told everyone else and because of this he’s shut himself away from others and learned to just be alone while giving everything he has to everyone. This way, he never has to be hurt again while living with a sadness he chose. It’s an emotional end to an emotional album, and connects back to “Outside” at the beginning.

I’m just going to get this out of the way right now: this has got to be the Album of the Year. Now that I’ve said that I have to back it up of course, so let me just start off by saying to the fans of Childish Gambino’s previous work, you have nothing to fear: this is far and away the best material he has put out thus far, period. After hearing this album, the songs on EP and Culdesac sound like unfinished glimpses of greatness. As far as it being the AOTY, I also want to go on the record as saying that this–since the Drake comparisons are inevitable anyway–is what Drake’s Take Care should have been. CG is just as emotional, maybe even more so than Drake is on this album, but he never loses sight of himself. He sings, but he brings damn near unmatched lyricism on this album that was lacking on Take Care. This twelve song collection is deeper than pretty much everything else I’ve heard this year. From top to bottom, everything excellent, damn near flawless. There really isn’t a song I dislike on this album. Much like J. Cole’s album, this album may just be about the moment. But in this moment in 2011, a year full of The Throne, Carter IV, Section .80, Cole World, and Take Care, I never thought a trip to Camp would be my favorite memory.

Update: Rating is changed from 4.5 to 4