Friday, December 6, 2013

album review: 'because the internet' by childish gambino

Let's ask an uncomfortable question, one I don't think there's an easy answer to and one I certainly I can't answer: how much does race matter in music, especially in rap music? On the one hand, music spans skin colour and culture, and one would like to think that it shouldn't matter when talking about artists or personal tastes. We live in a generation where Jason Aldean can collaborate with Ludacris and Brad Paisley with LL Cool J, and we should be able to judge the music regardless of racial connotations. And yet, when you have acts like Eminem or Cage or Macklemore or Yelawolf or The Beastie Boys, the prefix 'white' is always added to their titles as 'rappers'. But it runs deeper than that, to a bigger cultural question: whether hip-hop or rap hold central roles to black culture, and the distinguishing factors that make that genre unique to that audience. Now of course this can reach cartoonish extremes, such as those twits calling Lorde racist for attacking shallow luxury rap for its materialism and emptiness (which holds a much uglier connotation, implying that it's inherently black to revel in superficial displays of wealth), but one can't exactly deny that there's a distinctive difference between the place of hip-hop in black culture, particularly in the United States, in comparison with some other genres, like country or metal. And let me assure you, this isn't just confined to the hip-hop genre: many would rightfully argue jazz, soul, funk, disco, R&B, and even the very origins of rock 'n roll itself could be considered having deep roots in black culture.

And nowhere is this difference more apparent than in the subgenre of 'nerd culture' topics like sci-fi and fantasy, which has tended to trend overwhelmingly white or Asian. Now there have been acts that have bucked this trend - the Afrofuturist movement, for instance, with its most recognizable figure in modern music being Janelle Monae and all the awesome work she's done. These works suggest a synthesis, a fusion of stereotypically 'white' sci-fi precepts with discussions and critiques of real world black culture and history. From my point of view, Janelle Monae is doing something truly great by stripping away any needless racial connotations associated with subgenre conventions like sci-fi or fantasy, and adapting them to her own unique viewpoint.

So let's ask another question: what do you get when you have a black rapper who is a nerd and is somewhat enamoured with 'white culture', to the point where he feels he has lost something of his black cultural roots? Well, in that case you get Childish Gambino, well-known as Donald Glover, comedian and actor from NBC's excellent show Community. When he released his major label debut Camp, it polarized critics, mostly because it was an album that spent much of its running time discussing Gambino's unique insecurity: feeling like an outcast because he was 'too black for the white kids and too white for the black kids'. His skin was black, and yet he liked comic books and sci-fi and was defiantly not the stereotypical tough guy gangsta rapper, to the point where his attempts at playing one to win over girls were completely unconvincing. Coupled with the baroque pop-infused production, the near-constant stream of pop culture references, and his cartoonish and exaggerated flow, it made for an interesting listen, if not an unequivocally great or even wholly good one. Despite Pitchfork's scathing line, 'If you buy only one hip-hop album this year, I'm guessing it'll be Camp', a line denigrating presumably ignorant (read: white) audiences who followed Glover from Community (fun fact: the reviewer who wrote that review was white - make of that what you will), there is a grain of truth in the observation. 

And as a white guy who listens to a fair amount of hip-hop and who is clearly the audience for that album (having listened to Camp after watching Glover on Community), what did I think? Well... look, it was okay. I liked the instrumentation and production drawing from baroque pop with Kanye's influences, but Gambino's flow was jerky, the hashtag rap got old fast, the references were well-structured but dated themselves quickly, and Gambino's very real insecurity (supported by a bizarre myopic and backwards-looking view of hip-hop) often lacked coherency or depth. That being said, I can accept that it might have greater resonance with other audiences who might more closely resemble Gambino's situation, and all of the real positives on the album were enough for me to give his newest album Because The Internet a listen. Did it manage to work better than its predecessor?

Well, in a way, yes. You can tell that Childish Gambino was aiming a fair bit higher with Because The Internet than his previous record, and for the most part, he creates a much starker and more impressive picture than he did on that record. And let me stress that the best parts of this album are where he takes a run at deeper concepts and comes up with some solid observations surrounding fame, introversion, and dealing with death. But on the other hand, all of these observations come on a meandering, messy, frequently unfocused album that exposes the dark edges of a deeply insecure young man who seems to be swiping chunks of Drake's playbook - and ultimately, that means I don't quite like Because The Internet as much as I want to, which is disappointing.

So let's start with the instrumentation and production, which takes a left turn into dark, reverb and distortion-infused melancholy and rarely lets up. Where there were clarion moments of classical instrumentation on Camp, this album aims to go darker and grimier... although I can't help but feel it lacks some of the texture to pull it off effectively (which may be part of the point - more on this in a bit). The instrumentation that's most similar and immediately springs to mind is Drake's, along with muted R&B edges, but Childish Gambino has aimed for a bit more diversity, even featuring a guitar solo on 'The Worst Guys'. In fact, if I was to level an immediate criticism of this album, I'd say it's overloaded with instrumental ideas. Songs frequently switch up beats or drop the melody out entirely in mid-song, often multiple times and without warning, leading to a disjointed sound collage that's unfortunately less interesting than it sounds because it cripples the album's flow and momentum. It also doesn't help matters that the hooks are seriously lacking on this album, leaving the tracks to bleed across each other - and while I get this was intentional (he was looking to create a soundscape reminiscent of free thought and/or the randomness of the internet), it doesn't make the album an easy listen. And like with Drake, the dour melancholy of it all can occasionally get wearisome - even moreso here, because the clear thesis of the album doesn't really materialize until the final track.

Then we have Childish Gambino himself - I'll grant him this, his flow has improved and he's a good enough singer to more than handle his choruses. And hell, even his falsetto isn't bad - it's nothing special, mind, but he does a solid enough job conveying emotion that I'm inclined to give it a pass. However, there are still traces of annoyances from Camp that only detract from this album - the hard rhyming, the occasionally over-emphasized flow, and the fact that, like Drake, he's completely unconvincing when he attempts to come across as angry. Maybe Donald Glover is too much of a nice guy, but I can't say it doesn't hurt parts of the album where he's expected to 'go hard' and I don't buy it for a second.

But maybe that was the point, which takes us to lyrics and themes. On a technical level, Childish Gambino continues to show some well-structured rhymes and punchlines, and with the improvements to his flow, the presentation is better as well. Unfortunately, the pop-culture references are back in force, complete with auditory samples from YouTube videos, and while I understand why they're there, I never felt they helped the cohesion or general emotion of the album. If anything, the somewhat silliness of their presentation only made things worse and undercut the deeper, more serious elements Glover was looking to present.

And really, that's a damn shame - because the serious parts of this album are where Childish Gambino is at his absolute best. The entire album puts on display the internal dichotomy between his introverted insecurities and his desires to rise to fame as a rapper - and like Drake before him, the question of 'Does it all really matter' comes up early and frequently. Unlike Camp's descriptions of sexual antics and racial insecurities, Because The Internet is more concerned with fleeting romances and contemplating the spectre of death, so much so that the moments where Childish Gambino tries to brag feel jarringly out-of-place. Sure, the wordplay's good, but when so much of the album shows his obvious distaste for the thugging and empty partying, you have to wonder if the only reason these tracks are on the record are to give this album some form of forward momentum. Nevertheless, I'll give Childish Gambino credit for pulling off some surprisingly strong verses, either sung or rapped, where he contemplates his mortality on a deeply personal level. Artistic legacy is barely mentioned, this is more focused on a man dealing with the fact we're all on earth for a pitifully short time, and we need to make something of it.

To that end, the biggest net positive that Childish Gambino integrates into his album is the running metaphor of the internet, both to highlight the shallowness of fame in 'Worldstar' and the 'eternal' nature of the Web on 'Earth: The Oldest Computer (Last Night)'. Not only does the Internet provide a universal medium to communicate, it's also an uncaring entity that preserves the most banal histories - like, say, all our lives. And considering how so much of this album is centered around Gambino just wanting to be left alone and not having to bother with the shallow trivialities of the hip-hop game - and yet constantly being drawn back in by friends and relationships - the Internet metaphor becomes all the stronger and more potent.

So okay, with all of this in mind - some meaty themes that I truly found interesting to think through - why isn't Because The Internet really resonating with me? Well, it's a messy album instrumentally, but it's much the same lyrically. I've already mentioned that the thug brag rap feels out of place and completely unconvincing, but I'd also throw the romance tracks into that category too. Don't get me wrong, I understand why they're here as the tenuous anchors that draw Childish Gambino into a society he would prefer to avoid, but songs like 'Pink Toes' and 'Shadows' feel out-of-place on the album as a whole. As do the questionable references to privilege and isolation from black culture, holdovers from Camp that don't quite fit into this album. And on that note, this record can't help but feel unfocused and the ending lacking, mostly because it feels like we're only getting the broad brushstrokes of the story, the emotional stakes without deeper insight or resolution. And while it's compelling to watch Childish Gambino expose his deeper insecurities and coping methods to deal with death, anything deeper only begins to come together on the final track - and even that song feels unfocused.

Ugh, look, I like the ideas this album is exploring, and Childish Gambino's raw, hold-nothing-back insecure presentation is certainly more preferable to Drake's arrogance, but the presentation is messier and the lyrics aren't quite cutting or sharp enough to justify it. There are too many points on this album that needed sharper moments that went a little deeper to truly strike a chord, and Childish Gambino only really scratched the surface. And while this album is an improvement over Camp, I can't help but feel that Childish Gambino still hasn't found a presentation style that truly works for his half-comedic, half-deeply personal form of delivery, and Because The Internet doesn't quite get there. That being said, this album is frequently beautiful and while it might lack deeper dimension, I'm not one to deny the compelling pictures painted there. With that, it's a 7/10 and a tentative recommendation. 

Look, this album isn't an easy listen, with its freeform style, rapid shifts in tone, occasionally obtuse lyrics, and often painfully revealing material. And honestly, I can't say you'll all like it. But trust this: even if Because The Internet isn't a great album, Childish Gambino still succeeded in making an interesting album, and I'll take that over boredom any day.

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