Childish Gambino Finally Has Everyone's Attention, But He Doesn't Know What to Do With It

Seven years since his debut release, Childish Gambino is still searching for himself as a musician.
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There was a strange energy inside The Opera House in Toronto on the night I went to see the IAMDONALD Tour in 2011. Though the concert had been billed as equal parts stand-up comedy and music, it was clear that much of the audience had virtually no interest in the latter portion of Donald Glover’s act. Evidently feeling self-conscious about the uneasiness in the air, Glover cracked a joke about it in an attempt to dispel the tension in the room.

Paraphrasing from memory, he said something to the effect of: “Just so you know, I am going to be performing music tonight. I know a lot of you probably came out because you recognize me as Troy from Community, and I don’t want you to be disappointed. I know how bummed I’d be if I went to go see Charlie Sheen and then he just came out and played the oboe for an hour.” The joke landed awkwardly, eliciting laughs from the crowd, but not nearly enough to achieve its intended purpose.

Making matters worse, Glover’s heart clearly wasn’t in his stand-up that night. Perhaps he was bored, or weary of how easy it was to milk laughs from adoring fans, but it seemed like he couldn’t rush through his set and reemerge as Childish Gambino quickly enough. As he ducked backstage and prepared to do just this, the audience was shown a brief video segment designed to introduce the next portion of the show.

The video was a sort of half-comedy sketch, where Glover meets a version of himself from the future, who cautions him about an increasingly absurd list of terrible events that will occur if he proceeds with his plans to pivot to music. Much like the one-liner I referenced above, it was both a joke and it wasn’t. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the underlying insecurities at play here, but in the span of fewer than 30 minutes, I watched Donald Glover feel the need to explicitly justify his music career to both himself and his audience.

Approximately six months later, Childish Gambino released his debut album, Camp, to a collection of mixed reviews. Although there was plenty of acclaim to speak of, history has been unkind to this album because the only piece of criticism anyone remembers is Pitchfork’s scathing takedown. Awarding it a pitiful score of 1.6 out of 10, the reviewer lambasted the album for being “preposterously self-obsessed, but not the least bit self-aware,” taking objection to everything from Gambino’s choruses, which he referred to as “garish and impersonal,” to his entire worldview more broadly. If Gambino was indeed feeling insecure at that show I attended in 2011, I can only imagine how he must have felt upon reading these words.

This review was particularly influential because, back in 2011, Pitchfork was still generally considered the “cool kids” of music journalism—the publication most read by people who wouldn’t hesitate in the slightest to unironically refer to themselves as “tastemakers.” If music journalism was the movie Mean Girls, Pitchfork was Regina George telling Childish Gambino that, regardless of how hard he tried, he wasn’t going to make the word “fetch” happen. Much like Regina George’s character in that movie, however, Pitchfork was gratuitously mean. To be clear, Camp isn’t a particularly good album, but it certainly has more redeeming qualities than a score of 1.6 would indicate.

Throughout his career in music, Childish Gambino’s public profile has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there isn’t a rapper in the world who wouldn’t have killed for the sizable platform he had access to from the start of his career, but on the other hand, this apparent silver spoon made the increased scrutiny directed at him seem almost warranted. It’s hard to imagine Camp would have been reviewed so harshly if Glover was just a kid with a few mixtapes, but knowing that he was a professional comedy writer made it harder to forgive groan-worthy punchlines like “I got a girl on my arm, dude, show respect / Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech." There was an air of “he should know better” that followed Gambino around during much of his early career.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now view Camp as an ambitious failure on the part of an artist still trying to find his voice. Obviously, this doesn’t excuse him completely—because lots of rappers have no choice but to sink or swim on their first try—but to pretend like there weren’t hundreds of other rappers from this era, like Gambino, who tried and failed spectacularly to ape the styles of Lil Wayne and Kanye West would be disingenuous. There is a quiet dignity to failing in obscurity, though. Undercooking a meal is much less of a disaster if you’re cooking for yourself as opposed to catering a party. It just so happened that Gambino’s first attempt to assemble a menu happened to be at a wedding reception, heavily attended by professional chefs and the media’s top restaurant critics.

What’s worse is that Gambino’s failure was incredibly earnest. Despite not yet having the artistic chops to pull it off, he swung for the fences on this album, aiming to verbosely unpack formative experiences, explore the thorny nature of identity, and more. It was almost like his teenage diary had leaked online, but instead of reading it empathetically, his detractors dismissed his documented experiences as invalid because the writing was a bit cloying and heavy-handed. Short of any number of events that might trigger actual PTSD, I can’t imagine anything more traumatizing.

Taking stock of Gambino’s evolution as an artist today, it’s hard for me not to view almost every subsequent choice he’s made since the release of Camp as a reaction to its reception. I can’t fathom any other adequate explanation for how he went from singing choruses with the sincerity of a musical theater enthusiast to collaborating with artists like Nipsey Hussle and ScHoolboy Q on his ROYALTY mixtape in less than a year. Nothing sparks reinvention quite like vulnerably putting yourself out there and then being publicly humiliated. If Camp was one of those viral videos where a marriage proposal is publicly rejected on the Jumbotron of a sporting event, the rest of Gambino's career has been the physical makeover he endured to prevent strangers from recognizing him on the street in the ensuing aftermath.

The ROYALTY mixtape was the first step in Gambino’s grand reinvention. In the wake of Camp, there was a prevailing sense that Gambino’s fans had been inherited from his comedy career, rather than earned by talent, and ROYALTY was his first stab at earning his stripes. All things considered, it was a valiant attempt. Rapping alongside established veterans like RZA and Danny Brown seemed to challenge Gambino to focus on his craft—and despite the frivolous punchlines that seemed all too pleased with their own cleverness (“Y’all plan B like Walgreens”???)—he quite often rose to the occasion. Of course, Gambino openly admitted that he wasn’t rapping about anything in particular on the mixtape, literally rapping, "I used to rap about nothing, now I rap about nothing,” but after the mean-spirited response to his earnestness on Camp, who could fault him for wanting to take a hiatus from the lyrical soul-searching? 

Interestingly, Childish Gambino decided to continue down this path, placing even more distance between himself and his art on his next project, Because the Internet. Preceded by a meandering short film and accompanied by a confusing 72-page screenplay that was meant to complement the listening experience, the album was ultimately burdened by the complexity of its own concept. For as much as critics spoke favorably about the project’s admirable ambition, few people seemed to be able to appreciate the entire work as one cohesive body of art, putting a permanent asterisk next to the album on Gambino’s discography.

This is particularly unfortunate because the actual music was some of the best of Gambino’s career. Between showcasing a newly adopted “less is more” approach to his rapping on songs like "II. Worldstar," and an extremely pleasant neo-soul vocal tone on songs like "III. Telegraph Ave. ("Oakland" by Lloyd)," the album was filled with pleasant surprises that left listeners hungry for more. The production, too, was lush and orchestral in a way that suggested that Gambino had finally figured out how to utilize the talents of his primary collaborator: the accomplished television and film composer, Ludwig Göransson. Overall, the album demonstrated a genuine progression of Gambino’s artistry, intriguing listeners about what might have been had he not chosen to hide his new talents behind this needlessly convoluted concept. Alas, instead of answering this question for us, Because the Internet offered us an endless series of puzzling moments, like Gambino’s detailed account of a failed threesome on “I. The Worst Guys”—a strange story that has some vague relationship to a confusing screenplay that most listeners would never read. How very fitting.

On the STN MTN / Kauai release that followed Because the Internet, Gambino tantalized listeners further with these new talents, demonstrating a gorgeous R&B falsetto on his cover of Usher’s “U Don’t Have to Call” and proving once again that he’d learned to swap out some of his corny punchlines for the strategic use of space and descriptive imagery on rap songs like “Candler Road.” Ultimately, though, the project wasn’t intended to be anything other than an unfocused assortment of songs, illuminating nothing new about what Gambino wanted to achieve as an artist or where he wanted to stand among his peers.

And then, just as it seemed like we were finally going to get the definitive body of work that would answer these questions, Childish Gambino took another hard left turn and gave us "Awaken, My Love!". Unquestionably his most acclaimed body of work, the album was a sprawling adventure into the world of psychedelic funk, marked by cinematic instrumental breakdowns and a spectacular display of previously unseen vocal range. Yet, for as impressive as the album undoubtedly was, I couldn’t help but think that Childish Gambino was hiding behind reinvention yet again. It was such a sharp departure from everything else he’d ever released, that it almost felt like Gambino was a dorky grade schooler taking on a new persona to impress the cool kids at a new school. Obviously, I don't have a window into Gambino’s thoughts, nor do I have any reason to doubt his genuine love for this style of music, but from my perspective, the album was almost exhausting in how loudly it seemed to scream, “Take me seriously as a musician!”

That said, if it was Gambino’s intention to release "Awaken, My Love!" as a palette cleanser to reset the expectations of critics, he certainly succeeded in achieving this goal. Between the success of this album, "RedBone" in particular, and the sheer triumph that is Atlanta, Gambino is currently on an unprecedented streak of artistic achievement, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Fittingly, when “This Is America” was released back in May, there no longer seemed to be any skepticism following him around. No one questioned the sincerity of his intentions, no one criticized his raps for being too precious, and no one panned him for attempting to bundle an audio and visual concept that was too convoluted. It finally seemed like Donald Glover and Childish Gambino had managed to unite into one artist, reconciling all of his various gifts into a singular, cohesive body of work. Troubling charges of plagiarism aside, it seemed like he’d definitively made it to the other side of the Camp debacle and was finally ready to make his essential contribution to music.

And then he released his latest EP this past week, Summer Pack, a collection of two breezy pop songs that once again provides absolutely no indication as to which path Childish Gambino wishes to take as an artist. The songs are equal parts catchy and confounding, filled with elegant production and pleasant melodies, but bogged down by lyrics that sound like saccharine teenage poetry, like “You took this heart of mine / You'll be my valentine.” Forgive me for criticizing these songs too harshly, because I genuinely enjoy both of them, but I’m simply confused by Childish Gambino’s decision to attain the ears of the entire world and then deliver them this bland and inoffensive two-pack of songs, especially following such acclaimed, politically charged work. 

Seven years since his debut release, Childish Gambino is still searching for himself as a musician. Through a series of artistic reinventions, he appears to now have an endless number of disparate tools at his disposal, but limited vision for how to combine them. To be fair to him, however, it must be somewhat paralyzing to have so many options available to you. If the chameleons who can take on any color had any other motivations other than camouflage, I’m sure they too would have a difficult time choosing. Yet, much like Donald Glover eventually used his experience as a stand-up comic, writer, and actor to create Atlanta, I'm holding onto faith that Childish Gambino will one day reconcile his talents as a rapper, R&B crooner, funk musician, and pop star to craft a similarly breathtaking magnum opus. 

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