Childish Gambino’s Identity Crisis
- By Tom Noonan -
- Jun 19, 2012
A few weeks ago I found myself at a Childish Gambino show surrounded by other people also pretending to be college students. 'Many of us first knew Childish Gambino as Donald Glover, writer for '30 Rock', or in his role Troy Barnes in the NBC comedy 'Community'. Tonight, we were all there for one reason: to see what exactly Donald Glover looked like as a rapper.
There was nothing that could be called unlistenable on Gambino’s debut album ‘Camp’, but it played like a movie soundtrack to a Donald Glover vehicle about rappers. On the album’s first track, ‘Outside’, Gambino brings in a choir to build atmosphere and the grandeur of his record. This would be cool, or even inspired, if it wasn’t so clear that he got this idea from Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy”. The two hooks sound so similar that it almost seems like Gambino was aiming for this association.
It is hard to knock Donald Glover’s attempt at a double life as a rapper and actor (and writer, for that matter), but that double life might be the reason that his musical debut is unsuccessful.
Until recently, rapping always seemed like Donald Glover’s favorite hobby. It was something cool he did on the side, and his writing experience on the rapid-fire show ‘30 Rock’ made him pretty good at it. He released a few mixtapes, and the success of his own show ‘Community’ extended the reach of his releases. Soon, Donald Glover, as Childish Gambino, name he came upon using a Wu-Tang Clan name generator, had built a solid reputation as a rapper and got a record deal out of his hobby.
On ‘Camp’, Gambino’s first release on his new label Glassnote Records, we see Donald Glover, for the first time, trying to turn his hobby into a profession. But it seems Donald Glover approached this album the only way he knew how: as an actor. Rather than going into his recording sessions for fun like he used to, Glover attempted to become a rapper in the same way he becomes Troy Barnes on ‘Community’. He recorded a choir-sung hook because that’s what Kanye did. He groans on his track ‘Hold Me Down’ because The Weeknd made groaning on tracks cool.
‘Camp’ presents us with the new Childish Gambino, the fully fleshed out character. Childish Gambino is no longer someone Donald Glover can become to have fun. That character is, at least for now, gone.
Instead, Childish Gambino has become a character made up of all Donald Glover’s favorite rappers. This may be a particularly dramatic approach to breaking down the record, but it seems like the only explanation for what ‘Camp’ ended up being: Donald Glover playing the part of ‘the rapper’.
At the show, Gambino book-ended his set with semi-hit ‘Freaks and Geeks’. During both performances of this song, Gambino seemed at his most comfortable and, for the only time during his set, embraced the audience, allowing his fans to finish most of his cleverly penned lines.
At this point in his career, Donald Glover’s future success as a rap artist isn’t based on whether he should be a rapping actor or a rapper who acts. It’s based on whether or not he can separate the two.
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