Now Jonah Bromwich will never be asked to write for Community.
I think Donald Glover is a really talented guy. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s a very good rapper and his constant gripes about haters can get really grating. By complaining about his detractors, he puts those who haven’t warmed to him yet in an awkward position, making us feel guilty for not liking him more, when he should be putting in work to get better.
Even putting aside Glover’s lack of technical skill, the truth is that Childish Gambino has not yet emerged as a fully-fledged persona. We don’t know who Gambino is because, I think, Glover doesn’t know what exactly he’s trying to accomplish with his rapper alter-ego . On his new mixtape, Royalty, he vacillates between three different goals. The first is making people laugh, via the punchline rapping that got him attention (which he swears to “pull back on” on the first full song). The second is seemingly to embrace the idea of being a rapper, which means that we get a lot of useless swag -rap. The third and most admirable goal is to use rapping as an outlet for true stories about Glover’s life.
Unfortunately, even these songs aren’t particularly great, coming off like relatively empty diary entries sprinkled with platitudes and famous names. If the rappers featured on Royalty are Childish Gambino’s role models, it’s no wonder he’s having such trouble. Rappers like Bun B, Danny Brown, and members of the Wu-Tang clan and Black Hippy effortlessly combine those three disparate elements into comprehensive personas, and all of them perform well here.
Rather than whine about my problems with Royalty, I’ve provided a handy rundown ranking the rappers you care about and how they performed on the mixtape. Don’t thank me later. Or do. It’s whatever.
9. Tina Fey—Outro on “Real Estate”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus did it first and did it better. I guess people think white lady+rap mixtape=instant hilarity? I saw more press for this appearance than I did for anything else on Royalty.
8. Chance the Rapper—First full verse on “They Don’t Like Me”
I don’t know who Chance the Rapper is or why his name is Chance the Rapper but he’s got a solid flow and manages to make the kinds of references that Gambino usually makes while sounding relatively cooled out. Cool.
7. Nipsey Hussle—First verse on “Black Faces”
Nipsey acquits himself nicely on this toned down beat from Boi-1da. Nipsey is the epitome of a working man’s rapper: nothing really extraordinary but remarkably consistent. The highlights are his claims that if he shows his “face west of Texas that’s a big event” and his description of himself as “a problem-filled test.” Unlike many of the lesser rappers on this tape, Nipsey knows how to ride a beat and there’s no clumsiness to be found from him, or from any of the rappers on this list (save RZA, who makes an art of awkwardly squeezing syllables in.)
6. Schoolboy Q—Second Verse on “Unnecessary”
Gambino occasionally uses a Schoolboy-like flow, so it’s to the Fat Boy’s advantage that he gets to come in on the second verse of “Unnecessary” and demonstrate the proper way to unleash. Schoolboy’s speed emphasizes the snarl in his voice perfectly and even when he’s simply talking shit, as he is here, he comes correct. Soon the “knock-knock” in his verse here is going to be as popular at concerts as the “skrrrt” on “Brand New Guy” currently is.
5. Danny Brown—First verse on “Toxic”
Danny Brown is usually competing for that number one spot but this verse’s structure is a little too familiar. That being said, we’ve still got references to Arvydas Sabonis’s neck and “My Sharona” and a guy getting called a he-she, which, coming out of Brown’s mouth, is probably the funniest single thing on a mixtape that features two professional comedians. Also, skywlkr effortlessly makes “Toxic” into a great beat.
4. Bun B—First Verse on “R.I.P.”
The beat on this song will be divisive—except for the needlessly altered chorus, it’s just an instrumental version of “Nightcall” from the movie Drive. Personally I think it works pretty well as a rap beat, but some might find it too obvious. Bun’s verse isn’t divisive at all though. It’s a fantastic showcase for what the Houston rapper can do with a steady flow, segueing from jokes about seasoning and salty rivals to Brazilian flights and parables of parabolas. Bun urges you to use your noodle, but this verse is so effortless that you won’t feel the need to do so.
3. Ghostface—First and Only Verse on “It May Be Glamour Life”
A vintage Ghost verse over a perfect Ghost beat—pretty melody and drums with the perfect amount of snap to them, Moby Dick and Resevoir Dogs references and the words “Childish Gambino” as said by the man who was always meant to say them. As Tony points out in his first lines, “Hey world, this is Lollipop, raps for the sweet tooth, them real fiends who want that Ghostface and Sheek Louch.” Those fiends might be pleasantly surprised to find a song like this on a Childish Gambino mixtape, especially one where the main attraction is nowhere to be found.
2. RZA—First Verse on “American Royalty”
A lot of the best new rappers, including a couple on this list, recognize the power of a distinctive voice. RZA is one of the first to strain his vocals to get the proper effect. Combine that Wildman slur with opening lyrics like “This oxycontin, carbon monoxide and toxic concoction, collapse your brain cells, they swell from lack of oxygen, leave the opposition stuck, without a pot to piss in” and you’ve got yourself some of the best rhymes that Bobby Digital has spit in a long, long time in a surprising bid for the best verse on Royalty.
1. Ab-Soul—Third Verse on “Unnecessary”
Ab-Soul is one of the latest in a long list of rappers to declare himself to be the best doing it. It’s an interesting gambit for any talented rapper—once you claim superlative status and start putting in work, fans are going to be more critical of each and every verse, but also more willing to support your claim if you appear to deserve the belt. Though I think Ab is still a little behind Kendrick, Danny Brown, and a couple of others, his verse on “Unnecessary” is a masterwork, and a huge boost to his status, especially considering that the Gambino tape will get widespread play among those who don’t necessarily follow rap too closely.
Ab’s verse is aided by a nice beat switch that suits his stoned out vibe, but what cements his victory is his constant vacillation between flows. When there are about forty-five seconds left in the song and things start moving at a heightened pace until the end, where in the last four bars, Ab-Soul plants a flag in the song and claims it for his own, another placeholder to mark his rapid ascendance.
ZIP: Childish Gambino – Royalty (Left-Click)