Childish Gambino – Kauai
It is clear Gambino is mindful of packaging, the context in which his art is delivered. He could have released the STN MTN mixtape separately from Kauai, but its plurality represents the yin and yang he’s been battling throughout his rap career, and perhaps all his life. And as disappointing as Gambino’s reach back to the Atlanta past was, his sidelong glance at an uncertain future is especially impressive and downright interesting.
Much has been said about Gambino’s personal soul-searching, including leaving “Community” and a much-ballyhooed breakdown on Instagram. Glover is not just a rapper who raps about the internet, he is of the internet. He has been built up and torn down on the internet. He has a fervent fan base and an army of haters on the internet. If Because the Internet was a call to take a vacation away from it all, Kauai is the reflective result.
Like the sun glistening on the water, the EP warms up with a shimmery beat and Gambino convincingly pulling off some legit crooning. Despite its bright tones, the subject matter is more serious. “Now that it’s over, I’ll never be sober,” he asserts on the chorus. But it can’t shake a certain optimism. If it’s a problem that he’s now “so high,” it doesn’t sink in as an issue. Instead, it’s almost blissful in its innocence.
The positive vibes continue on “Pop Thieves (Make It Feel Good),” which features some tropical beats, bird sounds and a catchy chorus. He may indeed be bracing a form of sumptuous decadence (sex on the beach isn’t just a drink, you know) but he’s certainly enjoying himself in the process. The momentum is carried through on “Retro [ROUGH],” a re-tooling of “Love is Crazy” from his 2008 album Sick Boi. Instead of the high-pitched snarl that previously ground down the bouncy beat, we get a casually confident flow as Gambino is “in the house like a B&E.” But the quality dips on the next track with the Neptunes knock-off “The Palisades.” Thankfully, the plinky “Poke” picks up the slack with some actually interesting production.
But in all honesty, the beats and the raps are some of the least interesting aspects of the release. Instead, it’s the spoken word continuation of Gambino’s multi-media story line that gives the brightest glimpse of a talented and provocative artist.
It begins when Jaden Smith (yep) begins speaking on the outro of “Pop Thieves” and continues in “Late Night in Kauai.” Gambino fans can (and will) spend hours parsing the prose, but it’s clear Glover has more up his sleeve than another simple mixtape. For an artist clearly battling with myriad issues, it’s a promising glimpse of someone with something interesting to say. In a generation where people are bogged down in continuous connectivity, snapshot judgments, vitriolic teardowns and shortened viewpoints, this alone is a reminder that there is more than meets the eye, and much to be gleaned from reflection, introspection and investigation. He even leaves a bonus track to be discovered.
Brilliant artists and forward thinkers are often derided in their day, but to dismiss an artist out of hand for their background, or their resume, or their superficial style, speaks more about other issues at play than the art itself. More, it is increasingly easier to label an artist as whack for earlier projects but that’s a pretty cynical and short-sighted vantage point. Do we ourselves not grow, or improve, or eventually, hopefully, find our voice? Not that Gambino has fully found his, but by reaching back to his past (however superficially) in STN MTN and his forward-thinking Kauai, he is clearly on his way.
One of the biggest critiques of Gambino is how he relates to others. No, he’s not Kanye. He’s not even Drake. But he is Donald Glover. He is Childish Gambino, as you are you, and that still means something, especially in 2014.
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Kauai on iTunes.