In the interest of full disclosure: I am a big fan of Childish Gambino. I’m aware of the fairly substantial percentage of hip-hop fans who can’t stand him, and I understand their arguments, Gambino himself certainly talks enough about how much people dislike him, and the extremely damning Pitchfork review of his studio album Camp summarises the important points), and even agree with some of them. I have my own issues with some of his stuff, but purely in terms of musical taste, for the most part I think he’s doing something pretty interesting, and the last two releases (the aforementioned Camp and the earlier mixtape Cul de Sac) were definite improvements on what had come before. I was pretty saddened to hear he’d cancelled his Dublin date in August.
His latest mixtape, ROYALTY, was released for download on his personal website a few weeks ago. It marks a substantial change in his style, in a number of ways, and mostly for the worse.
Childish Gambino – who may be better known as the comedian, actor and writer Donald Glover – is an artist I have a lot of time for; he’s been successful in a number of different careers, he’s intensely hard-working, and I like the majority of what he does. I’d really like to be writing a positive review – I listened to Heartbeat about one hundred times when I heard it first – but this mixtape failed to excite. Funny thing – see how much Gambino’s lyrics refer to social networking, and particularly negative reviews of his music on blogs and review websites.)
Childish Gambino seems to have gotten even more arrogant than ever. His previous boasts of how he was going to single-handedly revolutionize rap music have been replaced with the recurring lyrical theme of describing himself as “black Kennedy”. He’s actually gone from claiming he could reinvent a whole music genre to comparing himself to one of the most popular US Presidents ever. The previous two releases featured an awkward but often charming mixture of this arrogance and his earnestness – one song would be about how much money he has, and the next would be about getting bullied in high school – but ROYALTY seems to get rid of the earnestness in favour of more boasts than ever.
In general, I’m not one to criticize an artist for becoming more mainstream or changing their style; if you’re making the music you want to make and people want to listen to it, then everything is fine. But by becoming more mainstream, Gambino seems to have surrendered some of his identity to more closely fit into the mould of a stereotypical rapper. Previously his identity was entirely based on the shtick “I’m a black nerd who listens to indie music!” but almost every track on this release is about how much he spends. This posturing just feels forced and uncomfortable.
One of the benefits of becoming more mainstream is that he’s been able to collaborate with more big names on this mixtape. Heavyweights such as The RZA, Ghostface Killah and Beck all have spots on the album. (Beck’s appearance as a rapper is predictably awful, considering that his career was arguably kicked off by how bad he was at rapping.) I’m delighted to see that Gambino’s career is going places and that he’s able to work with people of this calibre, but if it’s at the cost of his sound, I wonder if it’s really worth it. I’m also interested to see what effect this has on Gambino’s persona – when The RZA works with you and you boast about hanging out backstage with ?uestlove, it’s hard to keep insisting you’re an outsider to the industry.
After a few listens, the mixtape grew on me a little – the production in general is okay, with some good tracks, but nothing approaches the heights of Cul de Sac‘s or Camp‘s standout moments. It feels like the same small few samples and beats are used throughout, with few exceptions. The highlight is the rather good appearance from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – though even then, they only appear for the first minute of the track, which feels like a wasted opportunity. Interestingly, his voice seems to have continued to get lower (I give it two more mixtapes and a studio album before he’s claiming to be God’s gift to basso profundo). Just check out the difference between Bitch Look at Me Now and Black Faces. A measure of Gambino’s more sincere side is reintroduced near the end of the mixtape, but the final track returns to the intense arrogance that pervades the rest of the release. An ill-advised appearance from Glover’s former 30 Rock boss Tina Fey is tacked onto the very end of the last song, leaving the listener with the uncomfortable feeling that the whole thing has been a bad joke.
Overall, there are a few decent moments, but it fails to reach the standard set by his previous releases. I hope that this doesn’t indicate the direction Gambino’s music career is going to take in the future.