Childish Gambino has been criticized by the rap blog world for a lot of things. For many he’s a Twitter punch line, an example of a rapper who has literally zero redeeming qualities. His voice is seen as contrived, overly cocky, and derivative, his production choices unimaginative and commercially oriented, and his voice weak, whiny, and abrasive. Most importantly, he is an outsider, building a career with the tremendous head start of separate entertainment success. His fans are not seen as true rap fans, rising from a suburban demographic and screwing with the consensus of seasoned listeners.
All of this is true, of course. It is, however, true of many musicians in the rap industry, many of whom we tend to place many rungs higher on the critical ladder than Childish Gambino. In fact, industry outsiders can often be a creative blessing in disguise. Formerly wheelchair-bound child star Drake has managed to become a highly respected and influential figure in the rap industry despite much initial distrust. None of these factors should earn Donald Glover the intense derision he has received.
What separates Childish Gambino from similar MCs is his character. Donald Glover, the actor and comedy writer, is a very talented person who deserves a lot of respect. As far as I can tell, he is a charming and humble guy. Childish Gambino, his rap persona, is an vindictive and insecure mess. Past projects featured a mixture of comedic and sincere content, an apparent attempt mock the industry while superseding it. Fan support and blog rejection, however, seems to have hardened his resolve as a serious MC. Royalty sees almost none of the comedy that Glover is known for. The only sonic indication that the man has any sense of humor left is a Kristen Schaal tag and a Tina Fey feature.
Otherwise, the tape is a tour through the ruins of misguided perseverance and power. All rappers talk about themselves too much, but the good ones use it as a method for larger storytelling or a way to reveal complexities of character. Glover uses self-reference as nothing other than proof of his own legitimacy, consistently defending himself against arguments that it seems only he has heard. What legitimacy means changes from track to track. Sometimes its a free lunch in grade school or a cousin with HIV, at others its Hollywood mansions and snobbery about five star meals, at others it’s the fact that he knows who Curren$y is. Regardless, it’s always about him. He refuses to pick a style, preferring to mold his self-important flow to whatever scene the beat happens to be imitating, or even worse, whatever well-respected rapper he has paid to rap with him. He sees himself as next level for yawn-worthy lyrical gymnastics and mildly creative imitations of others.
It’s tough to pan this tape solely on the lyrical debts of its artist, however, if only because it is riddled with high profile appearances, which often serve to give much needed air to each tracks deflated tires. The collection is certainly impressive: two members of Black Hippy (“Unnecessary”), two members of the Wu-Tang Clan (“American Royalty” and “It May Be Glamour Life”), Danny Brown (“Toxic”), Alley Boy (“Real Estate”), Kilo Kish (“Make It Go Right”), Beck (“Silk Pillow”) and others. There are universally accepted icons, blog favorites of all stripes, and similarly well-loved left field collaborations. He intends the choices to paint him as a fan favorite and critical darling. He’s a rap nerd with respect for the past, but he’s not afraid to think outside the box. Rarely, however, does he show these qualities in the actual music other than through imitation and pandering.
With that said, it’s possible that his persona is much more infuriating than he seems to understand. The mixtape often offers chunks of entertainment that I cannot label as simply accidental. While almost none of Glover’s own rapping provides it, many of the featured artists offer some truly invigorated performances. Sure, the tape’s production is another iteration of the above pleas for legitimacy. It consists of sophomoric choices meant to be impressive in the most shallow sense of the word: mid-track beat changes, a live horn section, even a sample from the Drive soundtrack. When one of the many talented rappers on the track list gets behind one of these beats, however, all is forgiven. If Glover has one musical talent, it seems to be an ability to match a voice to a beat, even if he’s too delusional to see the misplacement of his own. Unfortunately, I don’t see him staying behind the boards anytime in the near future.