Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: 'Because the Internet' by Childish Gambino

Is it still a thing for non-rappers to think they're rappers? It was in the '90s, where actors and athletes were dropping albums left and right (looking at you, Shaq). I suppose it still happens - some people will never accept that they aren't triple threats - but it seems to be on the decline. Still, when someone is known for one talent and tries to exploit another, it raises some flags. That's the challenge Donald Glover faced with his musical endeavor Childish Gambino, and one he easily overcame. It turns out that Glover's quick wit and wordplay, honed by his burgeoning career(s) in comedy and writing, served him equally as well on the mic. After a series of EPs he dropped his first full length album Camp in 2012, followed up by the free Royalty. December saw the release of his second "proper" album, Because the Internet, and it Gambino found himself at something of a crossroads: what direction would he take his career? Would it be more of what launched his musical ambition? Build off of Camp and Royalty? Something completely new? The answer is...yes.

Because the Internet is a concept album, complete with a screenplay, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, that syncs up to the album. This depth is shown throughout; songs flow into and out of each other, and there's a tight coherence that gives the feeling that the album is more than the sum of its parts. Like Childish Gambino's previous works there's something acutely personal about the album. He raps of struggles, desires, mistakes, embarrassments, and other truly human emotions - often not positive - that are missing from a lot of modern music. It's an oddly somber listen.

However, Gambino's sharp tongue doesn't disappear completely. As mentioned in the announcement of his first teaser, "Yaphet Kotto", his trademark pop culture and "nerd" references are there, and each song has at least one. There's a whole lot of cleverness present, which works well in juxtaposition with the aforementioned moody tone. It keeps you on edge, not sure of what to expect, which makes for a truly enjoyable experience.

There's also a lot of experimentation to be found on Because the Internet. To this point, while there has been variety, Childish Gambino's releases have been fairly straightforward rap affairs. Because the Internet still has its fair share of rap and hip hop but there's a healthy dose of R&B as well. Ludwig Göransson's instrumentals are still present but each song is unique. The hard, syncopated "WorldStar" isn't the tempo-mixed "Shadows" isn't the almost pop-esque "3005" isn't the bass-heavy "II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)." Guest performers like Chance the Rapper and Azealia Banks, as well as samples, are used to great effect and complement each song without taking away from Gambino's presence, especially when compared to Royalty's mile-long guest list.

Because the Internet is what you want it to be: you can follow Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, delve into the subtitled track titles, trace the narrative string that weaves throughout; or you can simply enjoy it for a well-written, well-produced hip hop album. There's really as much to it as you want to put into it. While the album builds off of Childish Gambino's previous work, it's also clear that he's experimenting, changing, growing. Does he have anything to prove still, after a meteoric rise and a trail of sold-at-worst releases? Maybe in his mind. Because the Internet cements him as a voice for a new age of rap, but if a need for validation means he'll keep pushing the boundaries and his next release shows as much growth as Camp to Because the Internet, I won't complain.

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