All may be fair in love and war, but Childish Gambino’s new album takes no prisoners in its fantastically-merciless lyrical acuity, itself a sharply driven wit that comes with a seriously hard edge.
Whereas other artists stuff their work with pop culture references that seem both out of place and unwelcome, Donald Glover credibly delivers lines like “made the beat and murdered it / Casey Anthony.” As a former writer for 30 Rock, Glover delivers slingshots stuffed with punch lines that don’t just resonate; they clang around for a while until the listener finally gets the message.
Critics will draw comparisons between Camp and Drake’s new album, Take Care, but apart from some similarly indie-styling and sampling, the two couldn’t be any more different. Whereas Drake has become a brooding shadow of his former self, Glover knows how to temper his emotions, offering up an array of feelings that make him seem more genuinely human. Whereas Drake is achingly defensive and overly turbulent, Glover is brutally honest but inherently likeable.
Glover cribs abundantly from other artists, but unlike some, incorporates rather than mimics his predecessors. He raps about being from and leaving the slums of the Bronx as a young child but never whines about his early upbringing. Glover also dwells on crushes and romantic mistakes he’s made, intensely personal moments that never turn cliched. Here too, Glover integrates a good deal of fairly non-typical rap backing music, including singsong backing vocals.
When Camp is at its best, it recalls old school ‘80s hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash and Biz Markie. One could plausibly travel back to Washington Square Park in 1986 and hear songs like “Fire Fly” blasting from boomboxes all around, lyrics like, “I used to get more laughs when I got laughed at / ‘Oh you’ve got a mixtape? That’s fantastic’,” buzzing foggily from the speakers.
It’s interesting to ponder who is influencing who when it comes to Glover’s connection to the indie world that, with shows like 2 Broke Girls and artists like Lana Del Rey, our culture has thrust in front of the masses as if trotting out a show-pony who can dance. While Glover may play up his hipster attitude with his thick, black-rimmed glasses and cardigans from Band of Outsiders, his persona is believable and engrained in each of his songs. When he name checks Terry Gross (host of NPR’s Fresh Air) and Carmen Sandiego, Glover demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge his-not-so inner geek while aligning himself with a huge mass of fans.
Similarly, Glover shows a keen intuition for music as a whole in his incorporation of some truly daring samples and noises that sound like they were tailor-made for the rapper’s usage. “Heartbeat,” Camp’s most likely song to reach pop radio with its heavily synthesized beats, flips electronic music on its head. While David Guetta no longer cares about correlating his beats with his guest artists, Glover embraces his music and delivers abundantly enjoyable cohesion.
At times, whether intentional or not, Glover delves into some real-world race relations material that explores a very different aspect of identity. “Only black kid at a Sufjan concert,” he raps on “Fire Fly,” later mentioning that “these black kids want something new I swear it / something they wanna say but couldn’t ‘cause they embarrassed.” On a dark and strangely melancholic number called “Hold You Down,” Glover spits lines like “you’re not racist ’cause The Wire‘s in your Netflix queue.” They arrive as mysteriously comic lessons.
Other songs like “Backpacker” and “All the Shine” pack an emotional punch, but where Glover really shows his talent is during the last several minutes of the final track, “That Power.” To end Camp with a spoken word outro is a daring move, but one that Glover aces. Here, he details the story of telling a girl he liked her on the bus back from summer camp, and how the ensuing story taught him to put all of himself in the public eye for everyone to see. “I learnt cut out the middleman / make it all for everybody / always. / Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody / everybody already knows / I told them,” he says calmly, as if there was never any other way of thinking about it. With Camp‘s release, everybody who doesn’t already will certainly know.