In combination with the mixtape STN MTN—a conglomeration of rap songs unlike anything Childish Gambino has made before—Kauai arrives at the scene as a refreshing return to the familiar, much like its name would suggest. The surprise EP is emotional in a way completely opposite to STN MTN. Amid powerful storytelling, high-quality production value, and meaningful spoken word, each track of Kauai speaks to Gambino’s identity as an artist. Certainly the differences in STN MTN and Kauai are intentional, serving to contrast the soothing, easygoing nature of Kauai with the heavier rap world of Atlanta, but in any light, Kauai is particularly exceptional. It’s some of Gambino’s best work, both on account of his own growth and his ability to work together with other artists.
The majority of songs are smooth, enjoyable tracks, specifically highlighting his vocals. Whether it’s the playful atmosphere of “Sober” or the soulful vibe of “Retro,” the feel of these songs demonstrates good taste—there’s nothing overdone about them. Moving away from the more ostentatious singles of STN MTN, Gambino brings it back to his simpler, musical root with Kauai—keeping to an aesthetic fans adore and love. His approach is minimal, but the product is actually quite thoughtful, with the content enhanced by Gamino’s musicality.
Crucial to Kauai’s success is collaboration. Whether it’s performing intense spoken word with Jaden Smith, or singing harmonies with Christian Rich, it’s obvious that Gambino wanted to bring on as much talent as he could could to the seven-track EP. Without these collaborations, there wouldn’t be much to talk about. Sure, the rest of the album is good, but it very easily could teeter toward one-dimensionality. Plenty of artists release successful hip-hop EPs. It’s the joining of minds—the coming together of great artists—that makes Kauai something special.
Of the EP’s seven tracks, four are collaborations. Alongside Smith, Rich, and Steve Glover, Gambino shows just how versatile he can be. Produced with Glover, “Poke” is truly hip-hop. The amount of production is much greater here than on any of the other songs, and it strays away from the easy listening of Gambino’s other tracks. Rich, on the other hand, enhances Gambino’s smooth stylings with tight harmonies in “The Palisades.”
Smith collaborates with Gambino on two tracks, and after hearing the two together, this combination makes sense. Their sounds feel organic, and their delivery packs a punch. Primarily through spoken word, Smith and Gambino focus on lyricism. “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good)” and “Late Night in Kauai” are successful because of their attention to rhyme and lyric—with scaled-back musical production to complement the words. Whereas some songs (such as “Poke”) have a dramatic production quality, these are focused on storytelling.
“Pop Thieves” features a more pop, R&B sound enhanced by smooth vocals that soon transitions into a spoken word performance. The song’s introduction—a jarring, sudden switch to silence—allows for the listener to treat Gambino’s words more as poetry. The song builds over time, with a laid-back, island-inspired beat picking up amid Gambino’s rhymes. It transports the listener right into Smith’s story.`
“Late Night in Kauai” starts right where “Pop Thieves” left off, and then “Late Night” piggybacks directly off of “Pop Thieves.” Acting as a finale of sorts, “Late Night” provides a proper finish to Smith’s storytelling, with Gambino’s vocals adding a dynamism to the production.
Kauai ultimately is a testament to Gambino’s understanding of his limitations as an artist. He understands what he’s good at, but he’s also perceptive enough to bring in other artists to aid him in areas where his own work could be enhanced. While STN MTN seemed to clumsily experiment with an unfamiliar style, Kauai speaks to Gambino’s staying power. The EP is marketable without being superficial, and accessible without being cheap.
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