Donald Glover and the Gambino’s Curse

The paradox of Gambino Vs. Glover
By    October 13, 2014

Brian Josephs will now be known as Brián Josephs, because he doesn’t want to be put in a box with all the other Brians.

Lately, bloggers and folks from my immediate circle have asked me some variation of, “Did you listen to the new Childish Gambino tape?” More effusive sentences like, “You have to listen to this new mixtape,” and, “He goes in,” have also been frequent. I like new things, but I always find myself apathetic to new Gambino. With every Gambino endorsement, another “ehhh…” escapes my lips.

Gambino is a slightly above average rapper, but, to his credit, the dude has grown into a reliable songwriter. However, less than a year removed from Because The Internet,  the idiosyncrasies are often sublimated.  STN MTN is a project so Atlantian that Freaknik and LaFace Records get mentioned before the “Southern Hospitality” beat drops.

There isn’t much beyond STN MTN’s regional attachments. There’s some pipsqueakish chest-bumping and a mixed bag of punchlines (“Gassed up and you finished last/ I’m crying nigga, that’s tear gas”), but self-indulgence and fan-appeasement trump all else. In other words, it’s average. Even worse, Gambino has traded any semblance of experimentation for conformity. STN MTN is an inessential look from a scene that just gave us one of the best mixtapes of the year just last week.

Gambino, or Glover to be more precise, finds himself in an odd position. He’s an idealist tired of the hyper-masculine representation of American Blackness, but he’s sensible enough to know #NewBlack and being “Colorless” are naïve falsities. After watching his Breakfast Club interview, it’s clear that Glover knows he can be ended by one wrong move with the police. You have to appreciate that perspective.

However, Gambino struggled to express that perspective clearly on his debut album, Camp. Here he’s an Oreo finding his wings after years of ridicule from the meaner, less socially informed rap heads. It’s rapped with an honesty that’s incontestable and produced with orchestral gravitas you can feel. I empathize with his struggle. Still, it was a terrible album. It’s self-serious and tries to liberate the same contingent Kanye West spoke for 10 years ago. Only here, it’s done with the competency of a rubber hammer repeatedly hitting a screw on the head. Upon repeat listens, the loud production quickly becomes obnoxious rather than galvanizing. The alienation isn’t a fulcrum, but a contextual excuse (“My dick is like an accent mark, it’s all about the over Es” actually set us back).

But Gambino should get credit for standing by his worldview. Camp’s problem lies more within execution rather than its reactionary ideas. The execution got better in the following three years, but that sort of idealism dissipated. His charm has decreased because his music really isn’t that different from his peers. Because The Internet’s electronic soundscapes aren’t far removed from the stuff Kanye West and Drake have been doing. Genre-crossing is becoming a tired act, too, with folks like B.o.B and Raury insisting they can do more than hip-hop — trying to do everything despite barely being decent at one thing.

With those dots connected and his return to Thugger County, I hope Gambino doesn’t think he’s being subversive. It all sounds good, but there isn’t a clear perspective at the center of any of it, and even if it isn’t the same as Camp’s there ought to be one. Kendrick Lamar, for example, has made self-consciousness a focal point from track 11 of good kid, m.A.A.d city to the free form breakdowns of “i” and “Never Catch Me.”

Glover is likeable and he does have sharp ideas. Again, watch his Breakfast Club interview. However, they’ve become obfuscated through the Gambino persona. It’s fine if he wants to become to fall in line with the current crop of popular rappers. But from that interview, you get the sense that he wants you to react rather than be reminded of another rapper. Three years later, I still think Camp is bad. Still, some reaction is better than none.

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