It’s a little tough to talk about Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino without gushing just a tiny bit. To hear the guy’s growth as a rapper since his I Am Just A Rapper days, his Glassnote Records debut Camp is nothing like what he was putting out back then. Sure, he still raps about girls, overcoming adversity from both sides of the color spectrum and is more than coming into his own as a rapper of self-reflection; but even from his self-released full-length Culdesac, there is a notable growth in Gambino’s game. Armed with an impressive although noticeably calmer musical arsenal and a biting, tighter-than-ever flow, Camp is Glover’s sharp dressed, self-obsessed vocalization of his life story – past, present and presumably future.
Camp’s already publicized tracks represent the sonic minority of what this record seems to encompass. While “Bonfire” blazes and “You See Me” thumps with a crushing beat that apexes with a burst of Gambino fire, the better portion of Camp is centered around less aggressive arrangements. Choral-led opener “Outside” feels theatrical in its execution, balancing Glover’s backstory with the choral motif heard most prevalently on the track’s piano-tinged choruses. Yet, as the story unfolds, the laid-back, yet inspirational melodies and beats play a significant role in letting Gambino speak his often loaded mind. “Fire Fly” is ripe with back and forth synth melodies, sounding more like a pop track than a rap cut. His story, sans girls for the most part, shines again here, referencing meeting Jay-Z after his EP dropped and dismissal of his earlier work in typical wordplay-laced fashion. “LES” feels more familiar, summoning sparse yet flowing electro and a downer beat for a smooth, catchy chorus with some miss-or-hit verses to boot. In its eclectic musical nature, Camp’s odd child might be “Kids (Keep Up)” in its bell set and drum beat – a true ballad if you want to call it that.
That said, the album’s main drawback is in the sequencing and flow as the record moves on. The rarely expended energy of “Bonfire” feels sucked out by the violin-seeping follow up “All the Shine,” relying on lyricism almost as a crutch to keep you drawn in – a track near confessional-like in its self-reflective outpouring. The Yeezy-like electro beats of “Heartbeat” make for another welcome sidewinder – not because we don’t expect it from Glover but because of what we’ve heard in the first half of Camp. Its harping hums and simple, yet focused beat feel like a cut from his EP, something many would consider their entry point into Gambino’s world. But from front to back, Camp suffers from some misguided traveling as opposed to a straight path through Glover’s hip-nerd psyche and often poignant musical backing.
Lyrically though, it would take awhile to scratch the surface on Camp and point out the often witty-as-fuck, sidewinding lyrical phrases from each and every song. Whether it’s ‘She’s an overachiever, cause all she do is succeed’ (“You See Me”), a Casey Anthony reference in “Bonfire” or his blatant, yet effortlessly flowing storytelling on “Outside,” Gambino makes some of his best work here. A sure-fire improvement from Culdesac and in the same vein as his EP, the back and forth between biting, yet passionate lyricism and steady storytelling is what will separate Glover from his peers. And yes, there are still plenty of chest-beating, girl-calling lines to be had here – this is a Childish Gambino record – but our door into his world has been opened a little bit further with Camp.
While certainly not perfect, Camp is a strong true debut for Childish Gambino. With enough cleverness to draw in fans of Lil Wayne and Drake, Camp’s twentysomething-minded lyricism and catchy musical movements make it an exciting time to be discovering one of hip-hop’s brighter minds.