Ahh. That’s the sound that welcomes the listener to Childish Gambino’s iTunes debut, Camp. It’s appropriate because this album is a breath of fresh air. What better place to get fresh air than Outside? The first track talks about growing up poor and having friends and family resent you when you work hard to get out of that life. He talks about his cousin who grew up so close to him and is now consumed by the street life, jaded by his cousin’s fame. The song is catchy with its bouncing drum beat and clap-along chorus and Childish Gambino reminds the listener that
There’s a world we can visit if we go outside.”
Fire Fly reminds me a bit of Notorious B.I.G. Childish serenades along with female backing vocals. In this song, he speaks of an awkward, nerdy upbringing and laughs at how fame has not changed him, but it’s changed others’ perspective of him. Girls that used to ignore him now want to hook up with him; guys who used to make fun of him want to be his friend. Rap made him cool and he thinks it’s funny. I found myself singing along with the chorus after a few times through. He’s explored similar themes in his past albums, but never has he sounded as polished and smooth as he does on Camp.
Bonfire is the culmination of everything Childish Gambino has worked toward. He started off with mix tapes: Sik Boi, Poindexter, and I Am Just a Rapper 1 & 2. Eventually, he dropped a proper album in the way of Culdesac last year and followed that with another five song EP later in the same year. All of that was a labor of love and shows he has been working so hard balancing all of this with his acting, comedy and up until a few years ago, writing for 30 Rock. These albums were the kindling and the wood for this Bonfire. I always knew eventually the next Childish Gambino album was going to be available on iTunes and I would have to pay for it; but I paid it gladly, because his music is inspiring, soothing and sometimes, as in this song, kind of angry and yet satisfied at the same time. This song is his first single and he actually performed it on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week. It was a bit odd since half the words had to be censored, but I saw the passion in his performance when I watched it. This song makes me think Childish Gambino has arrived and he’s just getting started. My favorite line is:
Man, why does every black actor gotta rap some? I don’t know. All I know is I’m the best one.”
The next song sneaks up on you. It’s a slow jam entitled All The Shine. This song shows off yet another talent that Donald Glover possesses: pipes. In addition to the rap lyrics about fame and honesty, Gambino sings sweetly on a song that lyrically, is actually kind of bitter. It’s this bitter-sweetness that Childish Gambino is so good at balancing. It’s important to note that musically, there’s a lot of talent behind the rapping of Childish Gambino. He’s not just using a program to create beats; he has a full band on stage at concerts and utilizes a variety of instruments to bring about his unique sound. Keys are heavily featured on this song.
Then one song bleeds into the next and Childish Gambino brings a sad and short strings-laden song called Letter Home. In the context of this album, he’s at summer camp, he’s writing home to a girl. I can’t tell if this is written to a specific girl or just the idea of someone out there for him. Either way, it’s a nice interlude into the rest of the album.
Track six is Heartbeat and its own beat is funky and chunky. The song is about cheating and it’s interesting. It shows the difficulty that Donald has expressed before in keeping honest relationships. Once again, it’s freaking catchy.
Backpackers has a bouncing beat that, like its lyrics, is boisterous. Lyrically, it mocks the idea that he’s not “real black” because of the way he dresses or the music he listens to. It says defiantly, screw the stereotypes. It’s not my favorite track, but it’s still good.
The next song, Les is another song that showcases his singing voice. It tells of a relationship; possibly an affair that’s hidden. It’s not the best relationship, rocky even. Something to note on this song is the bass line; it sounds kind of rocky, too.
Hold You Down quite simply is about racism. He’s not just talking about white people being racist against him; it’s also the black people calling him white and saying he’s not black because, etc. It shows a clear goal: Donald Glover wants to be noticed for his talent, not because of the color of his skin. There’s some nice violin work on this song and it complements the driving drum beat. This song, like many of his songs, seems tailor-made for a live show: there’s a sort of clap built into the beat that the live crowd can join in and groove along with the bass line. Interestingly, the song speaks of the fear white men have of seeing black men with white women. I didn’t realize this was a thing I read this article. As a white male, I can say I’m guilty of racism at times and this song reminds me of one of my best friends; a black guy who always liked rock music and got an education. Black guys always call him “The whitest black guy” and “Urkel.” Interestingly, he likes to go to Childish Gambino concerts with me. I think he can relate to this song more than I can.
The next song, Kids addresses women as a whole and shows how time and life has changed his perspective. When he was a kid, all he wanted to do was be with these girls and they wouldn’t give him the time of day. Now he’s a celebrity and he has to be careful of who he gets close to, because some of them are gold diggers and others are out to hurt him. He’s grown cold and callous and he’s not that same boy who would do anything for them. He’s taking care of number one now. There is some nice singing on this song and hand bells, too, I think. There’s more soothing violin music on this track. Oh and I found myself at work today singing,
“If we were kids, I’d want to give you everything that you would want. Those other boys, they give you toys, but all they want to do is keep up, keep up, keep up…”
You See Me is equal parts Busta Rhymes and Eminem and yet, all the while decidedly Childish Gambino. A few things are clear from this song: Donald likes Asian girls, Donald likes other girls, Donald is hardcore. This song sounds like the rantings of a crazy person. Does it make me crazy if I like it?
The clap beat is back on Sunrise, and it’s getting kind of excessive. This song is a battle cry of sorts; another song custom-built for a live show. It even has a chorus of voices that sounds like a crowd at a concert, clapping along and singing it with him. This song is a tribute to his fans, often white kids and black nerds. He mixes rap and rock and he raps about his life, not some fake gangster life. There’s a lot of interesting lyrics here, but most importantly, for the last time…he’s not related to Danny Glover.
That Power is a good closer that addresses the haters that Childish Gambino can not seem to escape. There is way too many references here to explain in detail. This song is notable based on lyrics alone. He speaks of his longevity as an artist, having made it despite all his detractors and he did it by being himself and putting it all on the table. The song part of this song ends about half way through its run time. Then he launches into a story, backed by a violin. It’s a story about an experience at summer camp growing up. It actually explains his whole persona and feels deeply personal. I won’t spoil it, but it’s something that ties the whole album together and wraps it up with an interesting spoken word piece.
Overall, the album is definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes hip-hop, isn’t offended easily and keeps an open mind. If that’s not you, then the album probably won’t appeal to you, but I think many people can relate to the themes within.
For more Childish Gambino, check out iamdonald.com. He might still have his other (free) albums there if you go through the archives. Check out I Am Just a Rapper 1 & 2, where he raps over tracks by artists like Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear. Culdesac is also really good, as I noted in My Favorite Albums of 2010. Also, check out my review of his live show.