By Connor Harrison
BU News Service
“I never got off the bus, I still haven’t.” – Childish Gambino, “That Power”
You’re 14, maybe 16. You waste time on drama. You’re petty. You mean well, but you’re immature. You hold onto art because it speaks to you, not because it’s good. Your music playlist is a snapshot of your insecurity, a stream of lyrics chronicling all the unimportant things you shouldn’t care about.
Why be embarrassed?
In the scheme of rap, one man decided long ago – in his own lyrics on “All the Shine” – that sometimes our stupid shit is real shit.
Childish Gambino, the hip-hop identity behind creative wunderkind Donald Glover, has had more fun than most rappers on the road to superstardom. Between writing credits and cameos on NBC’s “30 Rock” and the role of Troy Barnes on “Community”, he managed to carve out his own slice of the rap game with lyrics chock-full of double entendres and pop-culture references weaved through shameless, emotional transparency. He channels the corniness and relatability of early Kanye West on steroids. Try to spot all the puns and references from these five lines on “Sunrise”:
“And I’m lookin’ at her butt, that’s that 20/20 hindsight
My shit be Jackson, Jordan, Bolton, Keaton, Tyson: 5 Mikes
Donald Glover, no relation
Always workin’, no vacation
They couldn’t feel me, novacation”
Gambino pisses off the purists because he is the utter antithesis of ’90s hip-hop, appealing instead to the shallowest clichés of millennial sensibilities. He can’t boast Nas’ poetry from the Queens’ window the way Kendrick Lamar can from Compton, or channel Eminem’s Requiem for a Dream dose of ferocity, or even boast the self-aggrandizing swagger of Drake. There’s something innocent about Donald Glover.
The result is unapologetically cheesy. This is hip-hop that makes you feel like you’re pensively staring out the rain swept window of your mom’s Civic on the way back from prom where half the attendees were already at the after-party, and most of your *real* friends were hanging out in the corner with the hors d’oeuvres talking about Stranger Things. He draws his fan base from the latter crowd, just like you do for your homies: angsty, nerdy, witty, clean-cut, self-conscious, insecure, romantic, well-meaning.
Camp was a thematic extension of EP and prior mixtapes, and the pinnacle of his appeal to your prom friends, not the critics. If you’re on the Gambino wagon, it’s a thrill watching him do this to his detractors.
We’ve all been to summer camp; whether or not it took place in the middle of the woods in July is less relevant than the portrait he paints in your teenage mind; immature, heartfelt, bound to the past, fires burning, s’mores, memories made under the stars that you know will last forever even if their imprint on your life story is inexplicable to anyone outside that bubble.
Has any rapper ever been a kid the way Gambino is on Camp?
Still, we have to grow up. So did he.
Because the Internet was Gambino’s retreat from the high school dance, a more mature, introspective continuation of shameless, boyish swagger that is either pesky or inspiring depending on where you fall in the dichotomy.
But beyond occasional Gambino aesthetics of poppy, synth/piano-heavy beats and lyrics about sex and insecurity, our nostalgia wasn’t quite as fulfilled on his his second LP. There’s no monologue as heard at the end of Camp’s “That Power” which reassures us he’s still stuck on the childhood bus back from camp. This album was more mature – great for the critics, not as fun for us prom kids.
Over the yearlong span of the Because the Internet/Kauai/STN MTN era, we sobered up to the fact that Gambino is simply Donald Glover, the versatile genius. He never needed Gambino, nostalgic camper. He had already established himself with Derrick Comedy, various writing and acting credits, stand-up., and now his own FX series aptly named Atlanta. A 72-page screenplay accompanying Because the Internet reminds us he has been blazing in brilliance since undergrad, most of that time never in music.
As a writer he’s effortlessly clever, as a jokester he’s hilarious, but his other pursuits are fleeting; we’ve never felt closer to Donald Glover as a person than when he is Gambino. Off the glowing success of Atlanta, a Star Wars dream, and a mysterious series of shows under the name “Pharos” that he delivered to a handful of lucky, cell phone-less fans in Joshua Tree, California, we thought the most childish, most insecure, most relatable version of Gambino had all but faded. Maybe it was finally time to get off the bus.
Not so fast.
Before breaking down into a guitar driven rock ballad, “Me & Your Mama” begins like a lullaby, taking me back the strings on Camp’s “All the Shine” or the xylophone on “Kids”. It’s the first single off his upcoming new album Awaken, My Love, coming Dec. 2. We have another shot.
Maybe Childish Gambino is not so childish anymore, but he will always be genuine, the way Donald intends: Unfiltered, flawed, artful or not, not giving a second thought to what anyone thinks, especially not those who believe they are too cool for him. In the process, he’s become a superstar.
The truth is part of us never really gets off the bus. Gambino is one of the forces in hip-hop keeping us there under the dome lights. You’re halfway down the aisle, maybe on the last step before the pavement, but you’re carrying it all with you, child you still are. You can still have fun in the corner of prom, or in the woods, with the best of friends. There’s always a little summer camp left in your soul, and just maybe, left in his too.