First things first – Childish Gambino is a disastrously clunky name for a rapper. This is less to do with the specific pairing of words and more a case of what the latter part will immediately evoke in the mind of any hip hop fan; thoughts of the Wu-Tang Clan. By Donald Glover’s own admission, he used the Wu-Tang name generator to select this new identity (what’s yours? Mine is Fearless Dominator, which, funnily enough, is what my parents were going to call me if I’d been a girl.)
‘Gambino’ is the surname of a notorious New York crime family, but in hip hop terms it’s more or less synonymous with Wu-Tang, each of whom took inspiration for one of their obilgatory 396 pseudonyms from said family – most notably Ghostface Killah, who’s Tony Starks persona features heavily in his solo work. Glover, of course, has no connection whatsoever with the Clan, and presumably hasn’t referenced them so explicitly for similarly weird, egotistical reasons as Drake did on Nothing Was the Same’s lead single.
Glover is instead better known as an actor, having played Troy Barnes on the first four seasons of Community, an amusing sitcom that shares Arrested Development’s sense of self-satisfaction despite only occasionally reaching the same level of excellence. He’s mitigated his obligations to the show considerably to focus on his music, presumably after watching the last season back and realising how spectacularly it managed to jump the shark. Not one to easily surrender any claims to being a modern renaissance man, though, his sophomore full-length, Because the Internet, arrives accompanied by a seventy-two page screenplay and a short film, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons.
By now, you’ve probably already reached a conclusion as to whether this particular project is thrillingly ambitious or hideously self-indulgent; it’s certainly broad in scope, and comes complete with a nightmarish track listing that, to paraphrase Glover’s Community character, is enough to make my whole brain cry. He’s clearly intending to hammer home the idea that Because the Internet is an exercise in pushing boundaries.
Instrumentally, at least, there’s some major strides here from 2011’s Camp, which was a garish mess for a host of reasons. The production has improved immeasurably, with Glover’s preference clearly for a dichotomy between hard, aggressive beats (“The Crawl”, “Shadows”, the borderline abrasive “Zealots of Stockholm”) and shape-shifting slow jams (“Flight of the Navigator”, “Urn”, “Pink Toes”). The record is replete with beats that are interesting enough to offer up new nuances on repeat listens, but not overly intrusive; given the album’s thematic content, though, the latter might not be a positive.
The slower tracks on Because the Internet are massively lightweight in a post-Channel Orange world; “Flight of the Navigator” sounds great, with a gamble on washed out acoustic guitar paying dividends, but lyrically is incredibly slight. “Pink Toes” follows suit – “she got the nicest hair”, “it’s crazy how the world look different” – as does lead single “3005″, and given the conceptual aspiration present in Glover’s accompanying screenplay, it’s bizarre that the record offers up such lyrical fluff when there’s apparently a story to be told.
Said screenplay presents the basis for a not-especially-interesting narrative; at its essence, it’s about the experiences of a disillusioned rich kid who’s bored with life. Whilst this is a marked improvement upon Camp’s lyrical idiocy, it’s hardly going to rival good kid, m.A.A.d city as far as riveting plotting goes. The concept isn’t particularly easy to empathise with – the casting of Rick Ross as the protagonist’s father notwithstanding – but I finished reading it with an expectation that there’d be genuine expansion on the ideas on Because the Internet. There isn’t.
I do grasp what Glover’s ultimately aiming for – a cautionary tale as to the internet’s ability to keep young people from feeling connected with reality – but his references to web culture are largely far too on-the-nose to have real impact; “I coulda died like my iPhone” is outdone only, in the sledgehammer-subtlety stakes, by the name of the song it’s drawn from – “Life: The Biggest Troll”.
Because the Internet, like Camp before it, fails to bring the sparkle that Glover has displayed in his comedy writing to his music; where his debut was crude, cartoonish and silly, this effort is faux-reflective, misguided and ultimately collapses under the weight of a concept that’s almost impossible to make sense of. Because the Internet’s ‘ambition’ turns out to be little more than superficial posturing, and that really isn’t going to cut it in the same year Yeezus was released. Beat-wise, Gambino makes serious progress here, but on every other front he’s tried far too hard; there’s a ton of 2013 hip hop records more deserving of your time than this one, which strives for greatness but is, ultimately, about as deep as a paddling pool.