Rap’s evergreen obsession with realness would be its undoing if it wasn’t palpably evident that message-boarders talking shit on the Internet don’t directly influence what rhymes make the mainstream and which ones miss. Missy Elliott and OutKast showed, years ago now, that flamboyance, a distinct detachment from the everyday, reaps substantial commercial and critical dividends.
So why are so many bothered that LA’s Childish Gambino has never slung drugs to make ends meet, and that he didn’t come up the hard way? That he broke through as everything else before stepping out as a rapper? First a writer (30 Rock), then an actor (Community), both in the comedy field, the man born Donald Glover’s reputation in his on-screen-and-behind-it endeavours is impressive indeed. So why hasn’t the rap worked, yet? His debut album proper, 2011’s ‘Camp’, was completely savaged by Pitchfork (I quite liked it), and the same site highlighted Glover as the weakest link in his guests-heavy 2012 mixtape, ‘R O Y A L T Y’ (again, I quite liked it).
Perhaps the resistance to Glover’s campaign for rap recognition falls on as many uncomplimentary ears as it does because he’s yet to properly realise what he wants to achieve with his records. ‘Camp’ was extremely vitriolic in places, staccato flows delivered with stomach acid spittle, while its follow-up mixtape was dominated by bigger names whose presence only contrasted Glover’s shortcomings with greater clarity. Put yourself up against RZA, Ghostface Killah or Danny Brown on a duet, chances are you’re coming in second.
So credit where it’s due to Glover’s rap alter-ego – famously coined courtesy of the Wu-Tang Clan name generator – for delivering a mostly consistent, quietly impressive second studio record that, at its best, hints that a career exclusively in the music business could yet beckon.
A product (perhaps even a celebrity) of the ‘net, and at the age of 30 right in the middle of the world’s first truly online generation, Gambino’s past form saw him confrontational, aggressive, antagonistic. Just like how attention-seekers act on the Internet. ‘Because The Internet’ is at its most appealing when these look-at-me histrionics give way to calmer, more introspective passages showcasing a thoroughly decent singing voice – there are moments, such as on the tracks ‘II. Zealots Of Stockholm’ and ‘I. Flight Of The Navigator’ where you’re certain this guy is tracking Frank Ocean on the path to proper R&B crossover.
Elsewhere, Glover channels the smoothness of Drake on ‘III. Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland” By Lloyd)’ – which does, indeed, begin with a snippet of said parenthesised song – and he’s a fine foil to the guesting Chance The Rapper on ‘I. The Worst Guys’, a track that takes guitar solos back to the 1980s and absolutely, unashamedly loves it. The latter’s one of the few numbers here where a featured artist appears – Glover’s learned from ‘R O Y A L T Y’ – and he handles much of the production himself, too. Of the hired studio hands, Thundercat’s presence on ‘II. Shadows’ proves the most obviously audible. The clean beats and deep bass rumbles of ‘V. 3005’ (video below), coupled with wordplay that almost holds a flickering candle to Kendrick Lamar, ensure the track’s an easy-pick lead single.
The higher BPM of ‘II. Earth: The Oldest Computer The Last Night)’ draws Azealia Banks to it, like a moth to a flame, and oddly uncredited contributions from Miguel and Kilo Kish add colour to ‘II. No Exit’ and ‘II. Zealots…’ respectively. But none of these turns distract from an accomplished headline performance from Glover. Steadier vocals allow his storytelling to connect with clearer purpose, and his greater compositional confidence has resulted in a collection that does reward the sidestepping of pre-listen expectations – those formed exclusively from the experience of past recordings.
The screenplay that accompanies ‘Because The Internet’ – hence the act-style numerals prefixing the song titles – isn’t an influencing factor in the enjoyment of this album. What is, simply, is the growth evident since ‘Camp’, despite a few sour patches. Tracks still miss on occasions, and Glover writes with such self-awareness that the listener can regard him as a full-of-himself show-off, someone who believes he deserves musical success just because he’s achieved it in television.
The truth isn’t that simple: Glover has worked in the spotlight for so long that he knows no different, and ‘Because The Internet’ actually represents a subtle withdrawing from the pugnacious playacting of ‘Camp’ for a better focus on the traits that make its maker singularly appealing. And one of those qualities is a human imperfection that doesn’t always translate in a digital age, a heart and a soul to show that Glover’s much more than a mimicry machine pulling raps out of a hat for canned applause.
Reality bites. But sometimes it kisses you better afterwards and points out there’s a wonderful world outside – so get off the ’Internet and go explore it.
Words: Mike Diver
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Read Clash magazine. It’s almost certainly good for your health. Unless you’re Anna Wilson.
Listen to ‘Because The Internet’ in full via Deezer, below…