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Childish Gambino's Camp high gets real

Despite what his mixtapes would have you believe, Childish Gambino is not Just a Rapper. Gambino is the stage name of Donald Glover, who is also a DJ, writer, stand-up comic, and star on NBC’s Community. After releasing four mixtapes, a full-length album (2010’s Culdesac) and an EP for free, Childish Gambino made his commercial debut on Glassnote Records with Camp. Coming from my position as a complete Glover fanboy, I was more than a little excited for the album. After listening through many times, I can say that not only is Camp the best work that Childish Gambino has yet released, it is possibly one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.

Gambino’s strong point is definitely his wordplay. A mix of punchlines, pop culture and unadulterated wit, each track has that one line that is guaranteed to stick with you for days. The reference to French director Francois Trouffaut in particular amazed me, after I googled it to figure it out, of course. Gambino toes the line between unbelievably intelligent lyricism and swagger that appeals to a different crowd. No track embodies this mastery more than lead single “Bonfire.” On a track that could best be described as his earlier “Freaks and Geeks” taken to a whole new level, Glover seamlessly weaves bravado rapping that rivals Kanye’s with references to Invader Zim, The Human Centipede and a subtle dig at Drake (his main comparison in modern hip-hop).

Gambino comes into this album with something to prove and a chip on his shoulder. The minimalistBackpackers” channels Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers,” except for the fact that unlike Tyler, I’m not terrified of Donald Glover. The track attacks his “haters” (a common theme on the album) and attempts to shed the label of “backpack rapper” given to the likes of Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco. It’s a hit-and-miss track that has a heart, but I prefer my Gambino clever rather than angry.

Camp has a dichotomy that shows the range of Glover as an artist. For every “Bonfire,” there’s an “Outside,” a deeply personal track that gets inside the soul of Gambino. On “Outside,” Glover tells a story of his family growing up in poverty, raising foster children in their home and escaping the drug trap in New York that had claimed his uncle and his cousins. The haunting choral hook sets the tone that Camp is a story rather than a collection of tracks.

This continues on the string-driven “All the Shine,” as Gambino talks of the struggle of being himself in the rap game. The identity crisis is another main focus of the album. From race culture to the simple problem of being a nerd in high school, Gambino tries to find himself through his music. When Glover decides to sing—and he can sing— you find him at his most vulnerable. It’s on those tracks that his personality truly shines. “LES” and Kids “(Keep Up)” are the closest things to Gambino love songs, and even those are dripping with his personality and flair.

I could gush about this album for a while, so I’ll leave with a few quick hits.

1. The production (done by Glover and Community composer Ludwig Goransson) is all over the place, but it only serves to show the versatility of Glover as a rapper. He conquers tracks from the driving radio-friendly techno of “Heartbeat” to the triumphant “Firefly” to the kick/snare of “Bonfire” with equal aptitude. You can’t say that Gambino has a type of track that he prefers or excels at.

2. I could have written a term paper over “Hold You Down.” The examination of race relations and what it means to be a “real black” was a heavy hitter and an insight of how Glover became the man he reveals on the album. The piano-led beat provides an introspective mood to the track. “A kid said something that was really bad/ He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad/ I think that’s really sad/Mostly ‘cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that.”

3. The two weakest points on the album are the arbitrarily aggressive “You See Me,” a track that lacks the polish of the rest of the album and seems like it would be more at home on his earlier mixtapes, and “Letter Home,” a track that I would love if it was more developed. As it stands, the entirely sung track is a beautiful outro to “All the Shine,” but I wanted more.

4. The standout of the album is closer “That Power.” It combines the two sides of Childish Gambino with a hard intro a la “Bonfire” (featuring the aforementioned Trouffaut line) followed by a chorally-backed examination of everything he has accomplished. The selling point here is the monologue that ends the album. It was a story of a camp love gone awry that I instantly related to. It’s the thesis of Camp.

Camp is a rare hybrid of seemingly conflicting hip-hop tropes. Glover is unafraid to be raw and vulnerable, but knows he can fit in the well-crafted wordplay that is characteristic of “harder” rappers. Glover’s personality and skill allow these elements to come together in an honest, real way. Camp is unashamed to be itself rather than what people perceive it should be. That’s why tracks like “Backpackers” and “You See Me” ultimately fail: they’re like everything else. As Childish Gambino opens “All The Shine,” “What the f*** did y’all n****s really want?/ I went with realness instead.” Camp thrives on that realness, and reality is what rap needs.—Jeff Hinton