By Justin Lyons
Childish Gambino’s (aka Stone Mountain native Donald Glover) underground works often stressed being different from the rest of the rap world. Camp, his first proper album, finds Childish Gambino in a class of upper echelon emcees and manages to balance influence with individualism.
The album title serves as a loose framework of a story that often comes back to truth and maturation with track names outlining what one might encounter during a summer. Camp opens with introspective cut “Outside” set to a backdrop of arranged harmonies. The layered choral refrain states “There’s a world we can visit if we go outside” and almost seems like a hopeful allegory to Glover’s goal of being more than just an actor who happens to rap.
The remnants of stream of conscious rhyming Gambino used so strongly on breakthrough tracks like “Freaks and Geeks” make way for even more potent story telling and focused passion. Candor and emotion pepper nearly every track on Camp. Reoccurring themes include racism, poverty, homophobic accusations, realism and internet hate. “Backpackers” is a humorous Chuck Inglish inspired take on the hip-hop genre’s most vocal critics. “L.E.S.” is dedicated to a flame backed by soothing strings that make risqué love in the heat of the moment seem like a graceful story. Even the fiery freestyle feel on “Bonfire” acts as a honest PSA for the music industry complete with warning horn, tribal looped sample and machine gun flow.
One element that was always a surprise on Gambino’s self-released albums was the polished production. From the classical music elements to tribal sounds and harmonic arrangements, Gambino clearly had aspirations to be more than just an actor turned rapper. Kanye West’s musical influence is particularly present on standout tracks “Heartbeat” and “All The Shine.” Sparse piano and hushed vocals build up to an eruption of ticking snare and 808’s & Heartbeat-style synthesizer. “All the Shine” is engulfed in an epic soundscape complete with strings, drum, and handclaps. Much like West, Glover shows he can sing and rap while waxing poetic about the anxiety of fame and family pressures.
“That Power” closes with an anecdote about summer love and its bitter end. The story and album’s conclusion insinuates that Donald is still a boy, but he should really give himself more credit. Camp is a grand endeavor that showcases that Donald Glover has more than matured as an artist. From the engaging storytelling to the stellar production, Childish Gambino is an alter ego that shouldn’t be hidden from the limelight. While it may be a revelation to many in the hip-hop industry, long-time followers won’t be surprised to see Childish Gambino next to the genre’s top stars soon.