In a genre so obsessed with the idea of ‘realness’, it’s nearly impossible to gain grounding and progress as an artist without authenticity. It’s taken a little while for actor turned rapper Donald Glover to really be taken as an artist more akin to Rakim than the Lonely Island. Not only did he reverse the career trajectory of the usual rapper who goes on to act, it didn’t help that he got his nom de plume from an online Wu-Tang Clan rap name generator.
Yet, since his 2011 debut Camp, which capped off the traditional mixtape run to establish respect and buzz, the Tina Fey darling has been earning legitimacy from casual listeners as well as Hip Hop heads. Because the Internet, Childish Gambino’s official sophomore album looks to further cement his role in the Rap zeitgeist. Does he accomplish the feat? Read and find out.
1. The Library (Intro) Produced by Donald Glover
The opening of the album is no more than the sound of a projector fan. It’s important to note that this album is supposed to coincide with an upcoming play directed by Glover. This may explain the title as the location of the opening act. At only four seconds there’s not much to comment or discern from. Kind of a head scratcher to kick things off.
2. I. Crawl Produced by Christian Rich & Donald Glover
Here we get the proper opening to the album. The beat sounds trap-ish at first but the female vocals change the tone up and the track soon sounds trippy. It sounds like something from 808’s & Heartbreaks era Kanye. Lyrically there is a lot going on. Not only does the music sound like early West, the wordplay also is similar to early Kanye as well, which has its pros and cons. Like the younger West, Gambino has a penchant for great verses that get bogged down by some real clunkers. The fiery proclamation “I scorch Winters, I burn Autumns/ I cut niggas like Kurt Vonnegut” loses some it’s heat when it follows “I double dare you, I Marc Summers”. Clever yes, but it’s at the cost of the seriousness that this track is trying to exude.
3. II. Worldstar Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
We continue the creepy miniminalist musical backdrop as Gambino mirrors perception of success with the popularity of urban shock site Worldstar Hip Hop. Again the tone is serious; Glover satirizes those who find fame in ratchetness and the overblown pretentiousness of it all. It’s a pretty interesting concept track that’s kind of a fresh way to address current trends. Solid track.
4. Dial Up Produced by Donald Glover
This is just a melodic intro for the next track.
5. I. The Worst Guys Featuring Chance The Rapper; Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
After the interlude it appears we have moved into a new act. When I saw Chance The Rapper listed as the feature I instantly got excited as the two have had great chemistry in the past. Yet, he’s only handling hook duty here. While I wish he could have given us a 16, he sounds really good faux crooning on the hook. The beat is light, melodic and trance inducing as Gambino tells about his exploits with the ladies. What makes this track different from the other tracks like is that instead of being braggadocious, Gambino opens up about his insecurities with women after being previously rejected, to now only getting play because of the material possessions. Dope and different, just like the last track.
6. II. Shadows Produced by Thundercat, Ludwig Gorranson, & Donald Glover
Glover is still in female friendly mode, this time addressing a lover who doesn’t seem to be returning the same level of romance that Gambino is. He proves to be a competent singer as he handles the hook with ease. He remains even-keeled throughout the song, and it’d be easy to miss the level of obsessiveness that Gambino expresses.. It makes him sound delusional, which really captures the mood of the song. The beat is beautiful and is just as hypnotizing as the last. It’s pretty obvious that Gambino finds his fame rather empty at this point in his life, which really makes you believe that he wants to find meaning in something, and here it’s in a woman. This just adds a layer of geniuness and sincerity that’s rare these days.
7. III. Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland” by Lloyd) Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
Gambino is still sing-rappping, but it hasn’t gotten repetitive yet. The track samples some vocals from Lloyd and details a relationship he has in Oakland. While Glover is talking about a woman, it sounds like more of a metaphor for a life in transition. The location and the person sound like a place of familiarity and comfort, and moving away, or moving on, is creating fear as Gambino doesn’t know what he’ll do if he loses his foundations. Lush, airy production is a perfect match for Gambino’s vulnerability. This album is finding it’s stride.
8. IV. Sweatpants Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
I was kind of surprised that this song sounds more like the first “act” of the album; it doesn’t match the sound or the subject matter of the last three songs. Instead we go back to the bare sounding instrumentals that made up the first part of the album for the second single. Although the sequencing is a little weird it doesn’t take away from the fact that Gambino completely annihilates this song. This was the first song I heard off the album, and the first thing I thought was “Damn, this boy snappin’!” Gambino really asserts himself on this song, and while he does drop a questionable bar or two, the good ones more than make up for the bad. Lines like, “Different color my passport, instagram my stack load/hash tag my day wear, and yo girl drinks my daycare” put this one in the win column.
9. V. 3005 Produced by Ludwig Gorannson, Donald Glover, & Stefan Ponce
About half way through the album is where we find the album’s first single. “3005” sounds like the rest of the second act of the album as Glover transitions back into talking about women. The first verse starts sounding like your standard pop rap radio song as Gambino spits some game. That’s until he admits to being ‘afraid of the future.’’The second verse continues the theme of Gambino trying to find reprieve from fame in his relationship, and he lays a tall order on the woman he wants to be with:
I used to care what people thought
But now I care more
Man nobody out here’s got it figured out
So therefore, I’ve lost all hope of a happy ending
Depending on whether or not it’s worth it
So insecure, no one’s perfect
We spend it, with no shame
We blow that, like Coltrane
We in here, like Rogain
Or leave it, like Cobain
And when I’m long gone, whole crew sing a swan song
Cause we all just ticking time bombs, got a lambo like Lebron’s mom
And no matter where all of my friends go
Emily, Fam, and Lorenzo
All of them people my kinfolk
At least I think so
Cause when them checks clear, they’re not here
Cause they don’t care
It’s kinda sad, but I’m laughing whatever happens
Assassins are stabbed in the back of my cabin
I’m glad that it happened, I mean it
Between us, I think there’s something special
And if I lose my mental, just hold my hand
Even if you don’t understand, hold up
So far Gambino has been masterful in letting us into his thoughts and feelings, and this track is just another example of that.
10. Playing Around Until The Party Starts Produced by Ludwig Gorranson
A piano instrumental mixed with the ambient sounds of a party in the background serves as the interlude into the next act.
11. I. The Party Produced by Donald Glover, Ludwig Gorranson & Pop Levi
The third act opens with someone doing a very good Pharrell impersonation as whoever it is croons about the activities to partake in at Glover’s house party (sex, drugs, and alcohol) The singing takes up most of the short track as Glover only spits a couple of bars before abruptly kicking his guests out and ending the song. The change in acts also marks the shift in mood as Glover goes from insecure and scared to annoyed and angry. I was kind of disappointed as I felt this would’ve been a good song to flesh out, but it does its job of shifting the direction of the album.
12. II. No Exit Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
If the last track was Gambino shutting down the party, this sounds like him dealing with the hangover and the fading high. He flows over a dark, techy sounding beat and laments matter-of-factly the vapidity of his fake friends and money. While not bad, it we are slowing starting to see the subject matter get tedious and conviction is now starting to sound whiny. It’s this kind of better than you, I-recognize-how-shallow-this-is snarkiness that annoyed everyone but the snobbiest hispters on his earlier mixtapes, and that same attitude has returned here.
13. Death By Numbers Produced by Donald Glover
Straight boom bap instrumental as we go into the next act of the album.
14. I. Flight Of The Navigator Produced by Ludwig Gorranson & Donald Glover
The fourth act sounds lucid and dreamy as Gambino Auto-Tunes his voice to an extraterrestrial whisper. Glover and Gorransen use an airy acoustic guitar and light drum pattern to under gird Gambino as he reflects back on when it was all so simple. The song is short on words but earnest, and it doesn’t sound as forced as “No Exit”.
15. II. Zealots Of Stockholm (Free Information) Produced by Ludwig Gorransen & Donald Glover
This song follows in the vein of “No Exit”; airy vocals jarred by dark techno. This song was all over the place and I was ready to hit skip on Gambino’s angst-sy stream of consciousness, but by listening I was reward with Gambino’s most poignant bars on the entire album:
It’s a struggle just to keep breathing
Existential asthmatic, puff puff pass addict
Crafmatic, making moves but they sleeping on me
We can kick it like it’s FIFA, homie
Nevertheless, I got that fresh like it was Crest
Crying cause I’m stressed. TMJ or TMI, it’s a lie that you’re living
I never understood the hate on a nigga’s preference
When every marriage is a same sex marriage
Same sex everyday, monotonous
Lost god never pray, forgotten us
Lost love, never say just like our parents
Too much power ain’t enough power
Brain splattered like I’ve fallen off a Watchtower
Any anybody can walk into any Denny’s
And wait until I’m walking in it with a gun that they 3D printed and I finish it
Kinison said if you gonna miss heaven…
Why do it by two inches?
Old money and new bitches
The observations on marriage and religion were so hauntingly on point I seriously got chills. There is definitely a diamond in this rough.
16. III. Urn Produced by Ludwig Gorransen & Donald Glover
The final song of this act is short and sweet as Glover sings about not being let go and ready to face what’s ahead of him. Good track.
17. I. Pink Toes Featuring Jhene Aiko; Produced by Ludwig Gorransen, Stefan Ponce, & Donald Glover
The opening track of the final act doesn’t get its own interlude like the previous ones; we just jump right into it. Internet and Instagram favorite Jhene Aiko is on hook duty and Gambino raps from the perspective of a drug dealer detailing his relationship with his ride or die girl. This isn’t a bad song, yet for an album so personal it feels odd that he would choose to do a concept song instead of further delving into his own experiences. Nevertheless, it’s got radio written all over and I fully expect it to be the album’s next single.
18. II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night) Featuring Azealia Banks; Produced by Ludwig Gorransen & Donald Glover
Whereas “Zealots Of Stockholm (Free Information)” rewarded us for sitting through throw away stream of consciousness with a dark horse candidate for verse of year, this track isn’t so kind. I’m sure these youngsters will appreciate the electro/house beat and fake deepness, but I’m good. I can’t get jiggy with this. And no shade, but I still don’t see the big deal about Azealia Banks. Remember kids, different isn’t always better. SKIP.
19. III. Life: The Biggest Troll (Andrew Auernheimer) Produced by Ludwig Gorransen & Donald Glover
We close the last act and album out here. Glover continues his stream of consciousness flow, and while that approach has been hit or miss, he knocks it out of the park with this one. This track reminds me of Drake’s “Tuscan Leather” from Nothing Was The Same as the beat changes (not as drastically as “Tuscan Leather”) throughout the song and there’s no hook. Just straight spitting. Gambino really shows a lot of growth and progress as a rapper who has found his own voice and delivery, as before he has been accused of trying to rhyme like Lil’ Wayne and Kanye. Peep some of the bars for yourself:
Slowest connection ever, my life inside a computer
Them bands that’ll make ’em dance, my wallet’s Lollapalooza
The violence, first-person shooter
First person to move, first person to speak
My mils aren’t meek, they scream in the streets
Losing my frame of reference, these pieces are shit with breakfast
Funny the day you born that’s really your death sentence
Glover continues to spit nonstop until the end, where the same projector fan that brought us in closes us out.
As we close out 2013 it seems appropriate that this album comes at the end of the year as it feels like the perfect culmination of where we are as a genre. I think it’s funny when we try and calcify rap into one specific sound when it’s always been about innovation and diversity. Just like we were shocked when Kanye released The College Dropout and we were shocked that a rap album could be successful without drugs and gangbanging. Yet that’s not how Hip-Hop started. It started out with good times and partying. Even though Drake is the hottest rapper out and Kanye is now six albums deep we still seemed shocked to hear this so called “emo rap”. What’s even more shocking is the fact that Childish Gambino is probably the best doing this style in the game right now, and could probably only be challenged in that regard by Dropout era West. Gambino actually sounds like a real person in crisis that is relatable without much effort, whereas it’s hard not to see someone like Drake as a whiny rich guy who is only trying to sound vulnerable so that he can get some ass.
However, although he may be the new uncrowned king of the sound, that doesn’t mean that this album is perfect or that Gambino has catapulted himself into top five conversations (or top fifteen for that matter). He still has a hard time toeing the line between clever and corny, as some of his bars are really atrocious. There’s also the fact that Gambino himself has stated he doesn’t want to be considered a rapper because he finds the label too constricting. Which is fine that he wants to have the room to express himself and not be categorized, yet by not fully immersing himself into the genre he comes off more as a really talented guy who can rap and produce, but still not quite worthy of the title of emcee. Your perspective on what Hip-Hop is or should be will determine how you digest that last sentence.
All in all though nothing can take away from the fact that Donald Glover, the guy on TV, put out one of the realest, honest and overall better projects of 2013. I really enjoyed Because the Internet and seeing Gambino grow as an rapper and producer. Hopefully by the next album he’ll appreciate that being a rapper isn’t the restriction he thinks it is.