Music Album Review: Camp by Childish Gambino

By Jonathan McJunkin

Donald Glover, who raps under the stage name Childish Gambino, is, without question, one impressive dude. He’s one of the most underrated standup acts out there, and wrote jokes for Tina Fey at 30 Rock for two years (he is responsible for “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” among other things). Since then he’s starred as Troy in Community, which is unquestionably one of the funniest and freshest shows on television right now. He raps, too, and it could be argued that this self-proclaimed hobby is his best talent. Camp is Childish Gambino’s first official album release, in keeping with the trend of other mixtape sensations like J Cole and Freddie Gibbs releasing official albums in the past month (technically Gibbs released another mixtape, but in my eyes if you hype something up for six months it’s an album, dammit). Listening to Gambino’s discography, it’s easy to see the progression from his early days as an essentially all-jokes rapper who, while hilarious, lacked substantial depth and was a mediocre (at best) producer, to now. On Camp, Gambino not only retains the wit and amazing one-liners that brought him well-deserved fame in his early career, but also adds a gift for conveying personal experience and stories in matter-of-fact language, touching on broad societal themes while producing objectively sick beats to complement it all (collaborating with his production partner, Ludwig Göransson). I would even say that Camp deserves at least some comparison to another debut album from a producer-rapper who is also know for his combination of humor, honesty, contradiction, and commentary. I am of course referring to the first hip-hop album I ever bought: Kanye West’s The College Dropout. Ok, let me finish. I’m not saying Camp is better than, or even nearly as good as, The College Dropout—one of the best albums of all time (of all time!). There are just too many parallels between the two albums to ignore. Both are frequently hilarious, while at the same time revealing the life experience and perspective of their creators (often in the same songs). There’s also the broad overarching theme in both albums of not fitting into the world they see around them, and both rappers speak of being different than their peers—Kanye for his lack of gangsta image and high fashion sensibility (gross simplification; basically, he’s just Kanye), and Gambino for his nerdiness and what his peers perceive as a “white” hipster persona. The most important and essential similarity is both artists’ total embrace of contradiction and self-honesty. Kanye speaks out against materialism and objectifying women while admitting to being an unabashed materialist himself (“We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”) and producing The New Workout Plan—which is to some extent a parody, but we all know how sticky discourse about “mocking sexism” can get. Gambino flashes between unshakeable confidence in diss songs like Backpackers, where he introduces himself as “Mr. Talk-about-his-dick-again” (I thought that was Kanye for half a second) to the introspective L.E.S. where he says, with total vulnerability, “I’m a mess/that don’t rhyme with shit, it’s just true.” Both albums are hilarious, nuanced, honest, and ultimately great, but what keeps Camp from rising to the immortal level of The College Dropout is an immediately apparent difference between the two: The College Dropout has guest spots from a veritable who’s who of hip-hop and R&B—Jay Z, Talib Kweli, Common, and Mos Def, just to name a few—while Camp, at a substantial 56 minute running time, features no one but Gambino himself. This is the flaw in Camp’s ambitious project—it tries to do too much with one person’s experience. It is essentially a mix between tracks that are just general hard-hitting rap songs, with one-liners, nerdy references, and the like abounding; and songs that present Childish Gambino’s life experience or emotion in a very revelatory way, at times referring back to the titular summer camp experience, often featuring Gambino singing substantial sections beyond hooks in a strong falsetto. This second category of songs is where the album starts to wear thin at times. Though some of the best songs on the album are the most emotional or revelatory, at times they come across as simply directionless “pretty” musings without much substantive force or passion behind them—in a word, boring. Life experience can only carry you so far in terms of material, and there are at least two songs (Kids and Fire Fly, to name names) that could be cut from the album with no deleterious effects. Camp aims to be an introduction of Childish Gambino as a person, a demonstration of his skills as a rapper, and an almost-concept album about summer camp. As he said in his previous mixtape, Culdesac, the rapper/comedian was aiming for “Nas’s Illmatic not Eddie Murphy’s Delirious,” and while he doesn’t realize all those goals completely, simply setting them and coming incredibly close is enough to make Camp a truly memorable debut by any standard. Here are the standout tracks: +L.E.S. L.E.S., which stands for “Lower East Side,” is putatively about hipsters—hence the title. There are a lot of jokes at their expense, as you will see below, but that isn’t the core of the song. The strings on the beat give the track a sense of melancholy, and undercutting the funny jabs at hipster chicks is a fundamental doubt in the lifestyle he’s living, masked and enhanced by the humor. In addition, the break at the end of the song is the most heartfelt and effective use of Gambino’s singing voice on the album. All this, in combination with the smooth easy-going flow of the rhymes, makes this my favorite track on the album. Favorite Line: She got ironic tattoos on her back/That ain’t ironic bitch, I love Rugrats! +Bonfire Almost every line in this song, the album’s lead single, is a one-liner. Sample line: “Hangin’ in the islands, lookin’ for Earl like ToeJam,” which is a reference to both the Sega Genesis game “ToeJam & Earl” and Earl Sweatshirt from Odd Future. This kind of thing is typical, so dial up when you listen to this record. It’s essentially Freaks and Geeks part II, but with a meaner energy. In addition to that, the beat sounds like a police car on fire at a riot—it’s crazy. Favorite Line: So this rap is child’s play, I do my name like Princess Di +Hold You Down “I won’t stop until they say, ‘James Franco is the white Donald Glover.'” This is the best example of Childish Gambino’s life story being turned into an effective song. He talks about his experience as a low-income nerd not fitting into the rest of the black community at his school, and moves it effectively into a broader discussion on what it means to be a black man and race relations in general. I’m not really doing the nuance/sound of this song justice in this description—it’s one of the most thought-provoking songs I’ve heard in quite some time. Favorite Line: Cause God knows what these white kids sayin’/Dude you’re not not-racist cause the The Wire’s in your Netflix cue. Honorable mention: +You See Me “You see me babe? Asian girls everywhere #UCLA” This is a song about Childish Gambino’s well-documented love for Asian women. Not much more to say about this one: simple, silly, and hilarious. It also showcases some of the most skilled rapping (e.g. tricky/creative cadences) on the entire record. Favorite Line: She’s an overachiever cause all she do is succeed.