Donald Glover has never been one to tread the path most travelled. His early EPs received scorn from the hip-hop community, questioning what right a comedian had to enter their world with his hashtag punchlines and corny indie samples. Despite getting a lot of positive feedback from fans his debut album, Camp, was panned by mainstream press, most notably receiving a 1.6 from Pitchfork. His follow up, Royalty, took a different direction and focused on heavier hip-hop production and big name features from RZA, Schoolboy Q, Chance The Rapper and more. He pulled back on the punchlines, went heavier on the braggadocio, and whilst it felt like technical progression it all felt somewhat disingenuous, as if he was changing his sound to fit in with the expectations placed on him after Camp.
In the weeks leading up to this release Gambino has been even more vocal about his emotions than usual. He received some mixed responses from the industry when he posted a load of post-secret style confessions on his Instagram, baring to the world his deepest fears and anxieties. He has been running an interactive story on his website, letting users explore through a ton of pages to piece together some abstract story which never seemed to form a structure, and more set a tone for what to expect with his latest release. A short film was released, titled Clapping For The Wrong Reasons, which explored his detachment from the opulent world he had found himself in. In one scene he pulls a gold tooth out of his nose, using dream symbolism to demonstrate how distanced he feels from the rest of the rap community.
Because The Internet needs to be seen as a project rather than an album, and the Instagrams, the short film, the Tweets and the Rap Genius AMAs are all contributing to something greater than the individual parts. Because The Internet is a reflection on this moment, and our generation’s experience of it. Gambino acknowledges our inability to experience something in an isolated channel and has created a project which hits us from every angle simultaneously with a cacophony of sound, visuals and prose.
The sound of the album reflects this ambitious goal, with songs changing direction in the middle of a verse, turning the track from a crooning love song to Jhene and into a disjointed industrial banger. At times it seems like the love child of Channel Orange and Yeezus, challenging the listener to pay attention to a huge range of different stimulus simultaneously. Gambino is delivering into the age of continuous partial attention, creating something that reflects the juxtaposition between our desire to absorb so many information sources simultaneously and our inability to get below the surface with any of them.
At different points you might feel like you’re listening to a Drake track, a Frank Ocean track, a Kanye track or a A$AP Ferg track. The album takes you on a journey, starting off with the fullest sound Gambino has ever created – The Crawl. This track is a massive statement to any of his critics, and is undoubtedly the best production he has delivered to date, offering an incredibly layered beat with a powerful hook. Next up is Worldstar, a direct challenge to the hip-hop community that has shunned him, and Gambino goes in hard. However, before the track has even ended it fades off into a saxophone solo and transitions into a more upbeat song with a Chance The Rapper hook and a guitar solo. From here it bounces straight into a soulful collaboration with Thundercat, featuring Gambino doing some of the best singing we’ve heard ins his career.
The album continues to follow this disjointed structure for the next 19 tracks, with notable highlights including the dark and grimy No Exit, the dream pop inspired Flight Of The Navigator, the smooth sounding Telegraph Ave, and the album’s closer Life: The Biggest Troll.
The album does at times fall victim to its own ambitions, when the lack of continuity in tone becomes overwhelming and you end up feeling frustrated, wishing for a bit the clearly defined structure we saw on Camp. With a concept album like this it can be difficult to balance the bigger picture with the experience the listener is feeling in the moment, and at times Gambino seems to care a lot more about making a statement than delivering a great piece of music. However, I definitely feel it was a success overall, and there are at least 7 or 8 tracks that could stand up on their own as a great piece of music.
Whilst this may not be the most accessible release of the year it is definitely an experience I would recommend to any of our readers. It is undoubtedly Gambino’s finest work to date from every angle – lyrics, flow, production, and singing, and a really unique release. Childish Gambino has found his voice and instead of finding a niche in the hip-hop community he has carved a new one.