Childish Gambino – Royalty [Review]

Childish Gambino is the Hip-Hop alter-ego of Donald Glover, an actor most famous for his role on the NBC sitcom Community. Last year he released his debut album Camp, and the most immediately noticeable difference between that record and this tape is the number of features. Camp was entirely free of guest verses and Royalty features 13 other rappers. Gambino clearly wants to prove that he’s not just an actor trying to capitalize on his fame, but with legends like RZA and Bun B making appearances, he’ll have to go hard to avoid getting shown up on his own tape.

1. Royalty
A nine second track that features Blake Griffin introducing the mixtape. Glover seems to have no shortage of famous friends.

2. We Ain’t Them
Produced by Childish Gambino & Ludwig
Before any of the tape’s guests get a chance to spit, Gambino sets the pace with a track that sounds like it could have fit in on Camp. He namechecks ?uestlove, talks about his family and promises to “pull back on the punchlines”. But a couple of bars later he drops a pretty lame one, “You got Drive like a sale at Best Buy”. Despite that contradiction, the song is solid, has a nice beat and makes me want to listen to the rest of the tape.

3. One Up
Featuring Steve G. Lover; Produced by Childish Gambino
Google informed me that Steve G. Lover was Childish Gambino’s younger brother and while he’s not rapping about anything new (guns, women, weed) he still goes pretty hard. This track, like the first one (and the majority of the tape) was produced by Gambino, but the two beats sound very different. “We Ain’t Them”had melodic string and piano loops, and this track is full of hi-hats, snares, and weird beeps.

4. Black Faces
Featuring Nipsey Hussle; Produced by Boi-1da
One of the complaints I’ve heard from people about Gambino’s music is that it’s made for hipsters who aren’t usually into Hip-Hop. This song works against that perception by featuring West Coast gangster rapper Nipsey Hussle. Nipsey’s verse is decent, but Gambino clearly comes across as the better rapper here. He goes off on fame and the economy using his typical pop culture references and rewind-required punchlines. And there’s a reason his typical style, he’s can be pretty good at it:

M Fox to my people on some family ties
Magazines got black faces when somebody dies
I mean look at Donna Summers, she was tryin’ to survive
People wrestle over petty cash
When we should be really cryin’ over that one percent
Like we tipped a milk glass

5. Unnecessary
Featuring ScHoolBoy Q & Ab-Soul; Produced by Childish Gambino
As soon as I downloaded this tape, I couldn’t wait to listen to this track. I’m a huge TDE fan and ScHoolBoy and Ab-Soul have been on a pretty big roll recently. There’s nothing wrong with Gambino’s verse, but Q and Soul have such unique styles that by the end of the song, I couldn’t remember what the first verse was about. ScHoolBoy is never very lyrical, but like O.D.B. before him, you don’t listen to his verses because you’re looking for social commentary, you’re listening because he just sounds awesome. Ab-Soul takes shots at Soulja Boy and uses at least four different flows.

6. Shoulda Known
Produced by Childish Gambino
Another solo track, another song that wouldn’t have sounded out-of-place on the much more introspective Camp. This song is Gambino as a triple-threat (rapping, singing, producing), and while his main strength is definitely rapping, he can actually pull off the hook. I don’t have a problem with rappers who sing as long as they’re decent at it.

7. R.I.P.
Featuring Bun B; Produced Childish Gambino
There’s no question that Bun B is a southern legend. But he’s recorded more than 84 (seriously, look at this list) guest verses in the past two and a half years, so it’s hard to get excited when you see his name on a new track. For comparison, in that same amount of time, André 3000 has appeared on only 9 songs total. But what do I know, Bun B drops a great verse (as usual) while sounding calm, cool and collected (as usual). The guy is a machine. Gambino brags about blog-hype, talks about how much sex he has, and makes a few more pop culture references. Nothing terrible, but nothing great either.

8. American Royalty
Featuring RZA & Hypnotic Brass Orchestra; Produced by Childish Gambino
This song is amazing. Donald Glover got his Hip-Hop name from a Wu-Tang name generator, so it’s pretty great to hear him on a track with the RZA. I’ve never heard of the Hypnotic Brass Orchestra before, but more rappers should record songs with brass sections. RZA is one of the best producers of all-time, but he’s never been a very consistent rapper. However he’s more 36 Chambers than Bobby Digital here, and that’s a good thing. Gambino also delivers one of his best verses here with lines like, “Home is that OutKast, soul like I’m Phonte, old-school J’s like Beyoncé’s fiancé”.

9. It May Be Glamour Life
Featuring Ghostface Killah; Produced by Myke Murda
Weirdly, Gambino doesn’t appear at all on this song, he doesn’t even produce the beat. Ghost mentions Gambino’s name, but besides that I’m not sure why the track is on this tape. Don’t get me wrong, the song is worth the listen. Ghostface’s verse is good and the beat is just great, it’s just not a Childish Gambino song.

10. Toxic
Featuring Danny Brown; Produced by Skywlkr
Okay, I’m going to get this out of the way. This song samples “Toxic” by Britney Spears. But don’t skip it! This is actually one of the best songs on the entire album. Producer Skywlkr’s twisted flip of the sample is the perfect match for a druggy Danny Brown freak-out session:

I’mma pill poppin’ ET, Givenchy on a ten-speed
Hot like Britney, in ’03 ya know me
Smokin’ on that Toxic, sippin’ on an O.E.
Dippin’ in that Molly got me higher than some Flow C

Gambino’s verse is clearly inspired by Danny Brown, and he jumps excitedly from topic to topic and for some reason disses Disney’s Gummi Bears. Internal rhymes and sex punchlines are everywhere. He’s not biting Brown’s style, he’s just making a cohesive track.

11. Silk Pillow
Featuring Beck; Produced by Beck & Childish Gambino
Remember when I said that some people accuse Gambino of being a hipster who raps for people who don’t like rap music? Well Beck is the king of that genre. If you’re not familiar with him, Beck is an alternative rocker who occasionally decides to rap (for some reason). After his totally nonsensical verse was over, I started to notice that the beat (Co-produced by Beck and Gambino) is pretty great. At first I was impressed with Gambino’s verse, but when I went back and paid attention to the lyrics, there wasn’t much that stood out. Like ScHoolBoy Q earlier in the tape, this is another case of a great flow overcoming mediocre lyrics.

12. They Don’t Like Me
Featuring Chance The Rapper; Produced by Skywlkr
Skywlkr produced six tracks on Danny Brown’s XXX (Plus it’s three bonus tracks), and hopefully that exposure helps to boost his career, because I could get used to hearing more this guy. There’s nothing typical about his beats but there’s nothing wrong with that. J Dilla made some seriously weird stuff and he’s one of the best to ever do it. This time instead of a Britney sample, Skywlkr flips Dem Franchize Boyz to awesome effect. The underground Chicago rap scene is blowing up right now, and Chance The Rapper is another young rapper from the Windy City. Compared to his peers Chief Keef or King L, Chance is much more lyrical, and comes through with one of the best verses on the tape. Gambino drops a few quick bars at the beginning and the end of the track but this is mostly Chance’s song.

13. Arrangement
Featuring Gonage; Produced by Childish Gambino
Gonage is a Juicy J sound-alike and unless you’re a big fan of that brand of Southern trap-rap (I’m not), Gonage has the worst verse on the mixtape. In his verse, Gambino refers to himself as a “Black Kennedy”, which is something he does throughout the tape. The Kennedys were the closest thing to an American royal family, and the title of the mixtape is referencing that. This theme is strengthened by the fact that JFK had a reputation for liking a lot of the same things as Gambino (women, power, money).

14. Won’t Stop
Featuring Danielle Haim; Produced by Childish Gambino & Ludwig
Like track 2, this song is co-produced by Gambino and his Camp collaborator Ludwig, and like track 2, it sounds like his older work. It’s cool to hear him change up his style on Royalty, but I really think that Camp showcased his talents better. I’m definitely enjoying this tape, but it’s not on the same level. But it’s not really a fair comparison. This is a free mixtape, so if Gambino wants to have fun making cool songs with his friends, this is the place to do it.

15. Bronchitis
Produced by Beck
Beck makes another appearance, this time as producer. This is a really slow and atmospheric track give Gambino plenty of room to ramble on a number of different topics including his Mom, his childhood, religion, and how he’s getting tired of women who don’t understand him. You really get an honest look at his thoughts and it makes for good music.

16. Wonderful
Featuring Josh Osho; Produced by Boi-1da
Instead of just bragging, or talking about money and easy women, Gambino takes full advantage of a great Boi-1da beat to tell a few heartbreaking and personal stories. This song isn’t as fun to listen to as other parts of the tape, but it’s a lyrical highpoint.

17. Make It Go Right
Featuring Kilo Kish; Produced by Childish Gambino
It’s time for another rant about hipster rap fans. I guess Childish Gambino really doesn’t care if he’s associated with hipsters, and that’s cool. As an artist, he should just be making his own art and not care who listens. However, this is one of the most boring tracks he’s done and Kilo Kish does nothing to liven things up.

18. Real Estate
Featuring Alley Boy, Swank, & Tina Fey; Produced by Childish Gambino
For a total change of pace from the last track, the always-violent Alley Boys is brought it to rap over Gambino’s best Lex Luger impression. But even if it’s not original sounding, this is a good song. Gambino reps Georgia and brags about everything, “Whiskey older than Betty White”. Alley Boy does what he does best, “My driver license’s suspended, but I’m still ridin’ in a Bentley”. Then someone named Swank does a typical hype-man outro, and then things get bizarre. Donald Glover got his start in Hollywood as a writer on 30 Rock and he uses that connection to put together one of the most unlikely things imaginable: Tina Fey appearing on a rap song with Alley Boy.

Bottom Line:
For the interesting production alone, this tape is a good listen, but good lyrics are usually what separate a decent album from one that you want to listen to on repeat. There are some great moments on this tape, but it’s an inconsistent project. However, over 18 tracks, there are bound to be some misses, and I’ll take free music from Gambino whenever I can get it. Royalty does make me curious to see what he has planned for his second album and a mixtape that builds hype is a successful mixtape.

Download: Childish Gambino – Royalty [Mixtape]