Donald Glover has rolled pretty far as the oddball. As a comedian, his offbeat brand of stand-up has garnered two Comedy Central specials. As an actor, he has graced the prime time airwaves as one half of the scene stealing man-child duo Troy and Abed on NBC’s Community. But, prior to it all, Glover was Childish Gambino, an emcee bringing a unique brand of urban geek swag to two albums and an array of mixtapes that struggled to find a niche in the bravado filled world of mid-2000s hip-hop. With Camp, black counter culture’s reigning Renaissance man attempts to parlay his recent notoriety into a musical breakthrough.
Camp is powered by the same blend of quirk, wit and vulnerability that drives Glover’s comedic endeavors. On “Outside,” Glover puts his Dramatic Writing degree to use, delivering a gripping narrative of childhood struggle over ominous keys and choral singing. The Gambino persona summons every ounce of its inner Childishness to deliver “Backpackers,” an impishly demented retort to his purist detractors critics. The Glover and Gambino alter egos come together on the Lil’ Wayne inspired single “Bonfire.” The energetic MC does a spot on job capturing Weazy’s manic flow and free association punch lines, but it’s unclear whether the song is intended as homage or parody.
While the ambiguity could have more to do with the Young Money capo’s recent self caricature than a lack of tonal clarity on Gambino’s part, it does encapsulate the album’s glaring flaw. Times and trends have shifted since Glover first graced the mic, and weird is rapidly becoming the new normal. Simply being “different” is no longer enough to stand out from the pack. Ultimately, while clever and engaging in fits and starts, Glover doesn’t do alienation (“All the Shine”) as well as Kanye, romantic despondency (“Letter Home”) as well as Drake, or shock and awe punch lines (“You See Me”) as well as Tyler the Creator. Add in a few too many nondescript keyboard based beats, and Camp begins to feel more like a piece of tongue in cheek performance art from Glover the comedian than an earnest album from Childish Gambino, the up and coming rap star.
Yet, it’s clear that Glover has the tools to carve out his own lane musically. On the final four minutes of the album’s closer “That Power,” he delivers a vivid spoken word rendering of a life altering summer romance. It strikes precisely the right balance of innocence, oddity, melodrama and subtlety that could inspire a truly special album in the future.
– Jeff Harvey