Better known as the impish man-child Troy on NBC’s hit sitcom “Community,” actor Donald Glover has also gained quite a following under the hip-hop moniker Childish Gambino. After releasing a few short EPs by this foul-mouthed alter ego, Glover revives Gambino for his first full-length album, “Camp.”
While it initially seemed like an enjoyable side project for Glover, in March he told Scene & Heard that Childish Gambino was something “people are telling me now that it’s worth the effort, so I’ll have to prioritize it, I suppose.” It would appear as if “Camp” is the result of some major prioritization, as Glover serves up a freshman effort that is a cohesive album that mostly delivers on his respectable musical talents.
From the start, it’s clear Glover is influenced by rappers such as Marshall Mathers – better known by his stage name Eminem – as sometimes it’s hard to tell where the individual behind the music and the alter ego begins. Gambino better serves as an outlet for Glover to exorcise his vitriolic demons without a filter – especially with tracks such as album opener “Outside,” where Glover switches between rapping and crooning about his childhood spent as an African-American in a predominantly white Georgia preparatory school for the arts.
Tracks such as the formerly mentioned “Outside,” as well as “Bonfire” and many others, prove Glover is also an avid Kanye West fan. From the soul-infused production of “Outside,” to the ever-present struggle between humility and full-blown arrogance on tracks ranging from “Bonfire” to the album’s closer, “That Power,” Glover pays his respects to the self-proclaimed “Louis Vuitton Don” himself both aesthetically and even lyrically on “That Power.”
While it’s not unusual to see artists wear their influences on their metaphorical sleeves, this is especially true of debuts by hip-hop artists such as Lupe Fiasco’s “Food & Liquor” and even multi-platinum artist Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt.”
Glover may spend a little too much time kneeling before the forefathers of hip-hop. He certainly develops his own personality, but the Kid Cudi-like track “Letter Home” and the Nate Dogg-riffing “Kids (Keep Up)” mysteriously deviate from Gambino’s established persona.
It’s not that these tracks are particularly bad – especially “Kids (Keep Up),” which sees Glover switch seamlessly between crooning and rapping unlike modern artists in the vein of Drake, who stumble with this same formula. It’s just “Camp” feels a little uneven by the end of its 13-track run.
It’s clear Gambino is a vessel for Glover’s more intimate feelings, and when he harnesses his lyrical prowess into a track such as “Hold You Down,” he walks away with an empowering statement about rising above other’s common perceptions of you. Though party anthems such as “Sunrise” are enjoyable, they seem to take Glover’s focus away from what’s most interesting for his listeners – the soul-baring moments that make “Camp” an album that’s more than a simple vanity project.
While it’s certainly not a new trend in entertainment for actors stepping away from the screen to delve into music, having worthwhile music is rare. After a first listen, “Camp” falls in line with “Rushmore” actor Jason Schwartzman’s admirable rock band Coconut Records in terms of overall quality, but not as instantly repeatable as “New Girl” star Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him.
Though more importantly for Glover, when he raps on lead single “Bonfire,” “Why does every black actor have to rap some?’ I don’t know, but I am the best one,” he’s probably right. Sorry, Fresh Prince.