Donald Glover is aware of the chatter surrounding his rap project Childish Gambino, and of the criticisms and pigeonholing that come with being popular in more than one entertainment category. He answers these claims in his songs, and it plays as authentic and necessary. Unlike his relatively carefree mixtapes, the reactions to his art, and the catalysts for it are now one and the same. Actor turned rapper isn't a new plot, but this story has a bit more reliability, and his debut album communicates this with vigor. Camp is built around the idea that we all share the experience of separating ourselves from the comfort zone, into a foreign surrounding, for the sake of learning something. The idea of summer camp is a stand-in for Glover's ascent into the music sphere, having already succeeded in other areas of the entertainment business. Childish Gambino goes outside here, and it's a worthwhile journey not only for fans, but for anyone who is tired of the current iterations of popular rap (and needs a vacation).
Unlike "real" buzz rappers, Glover is real in the sense that he isn't trying to manufacture so-called street cred or an impoverished upbringing. His struggles are entirely human; difficulty reconciling his intelligence, his race, his family, and most of all, his passion for a medium plagued with preconception. "What's the point of rap if you can't be yourself?" Also, "I won't stop until they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover." All you need to know, really, about his drive and his wit.
Gambino's rhymes are clever throughout, whether on the more run-of-the-mill stuff or the standout beats, he never loses his vocal prowess. Combined with excellent production and writing from his partner in crime Ludwig Göransson, a few dazzling moments occur. "Bonfire," the blistering single, finds a slightly crunchier Gambino voice spitting venom. "You See Me" is the breakaway hit, featuring some of Gamino's best and most hilarious jabs in a song entirely about Asian girls at UCLA. "Heartbeat" uses the dirty bass as momentum and an effective contrast to the lilting piano riff that also permeates throughout the song. Angry, but always with the undertone of worthwhile emotion.
Other standout tracks are built on the bare essentials; Ludwig's guitar riffs and unabashed Gambino ruminations on his proper place. "All The Shine" gets to this level. "What the f*ck do y'all ni**as really want / I went with realness instead / but all the real ni**as I know are either crazy or dead." Glover often gets a platform to also use his singing voice, another very humanizing element of his music and one that pushes parts of the album into R&B territory.
But after the conceptual theory, the micro-analysis of his words as a thesis dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of popular culture, growing up black, and rap music, it's worth noting that a whole chunk of Camp is as much fun as it is introspective. There's no barrier to entry with Childish Gambino, because the lingo is universal. Missing a reference or two is possible, but even then, simply laying back on the beat and Glover's bubbling flow is enough to enjoy even the most obscure moments. Inclusive even at its most abrasive, and rejuvinating in its brooding, Camp is a coming-of-age for Childish Gambino to fully separate from Glover's other successes, standing up on its own. "How come every black actor gotta rap some? I don't know, all I know is I'm the best one." A lofty burn, but one that has a lot more fuel now.