Hold You Down – Against The Early Childish Gambino

5 Aug

We put up a review of the new Childish Gambino album a few months ago and it got me thinking. Karthik liked the album, but misses the old CG. I don’t. I strongly feel that leaving rap was the best thing Donald Glover could have done and I thought I would put down why.

It’s a hard thing to say, but I don’t think that Childish Gambino was ever that great at rapping. Donald Glover has always been an easy person to like and that covers up for a lot, but the fact that it is Donald Glover rapping has always been the bit that most commands attention. He is the actor who raps some. His flow is fine, but honestly forgettable. He’s a little nasal and his emphases are too self-indulgent.

In fact, as a rapper, he reminds me a lot of Aminé. I like Aminé a lot, and you owe it to yourself to at least check out “Spice Girl” if you don’t know him, but liking Aminé comes with the fact that there’s a hard ceiling on what he’s ever going to become. He’s a fun goofball who makes quite a bit of solid music, but there’s only so far that you can go like that, and it’s hard not to say exactly the same thing about the old CG.

Going back to Camp doesn’t do much to shift me on this either. I really empathize with his feeling out-of-place everywhere, it’s a life I still live, but he really says all that he needs to say about it in a couple of songs and beyond that it doesn’t do anything. To unfortunately compare him again to a lower-tier rapper, it reminds me of Logic’s albums where his unwillingness to moderate how far he takes a central conceit causes his albums to drag. Logic is, in fact, my go-to parallel for a CG who stuck to rap. “1-800” is a very good song and the song that really made Logic. It’s a major hit and deservedly so and it’s a song that means a lot to a lot of people and had CG stuck to straight rap, I’m sure that it was only a matter of time until he struck it big like that, but it’s also what feels to be Logic’s peak and the new CG has already passed that.

A big part of that feeling of limitation is that I think there’s only so far you can go with hashtag rap. It seemed interesting in 2011, but looking back, I’m really glad that rap went in a different direction. “Heartbeat” is one of my favorite songs from Camp, but the J and Keisha line is disruptive. I’m in the middle of his story and he drops in such an out-of-place line. It takes me out of the moment for an honestly meaningless line. This is worsened by throwaway lines like “Put it down like the family dog” in “Crawl,” which just feels pointlessly edgy. He doesn’t have the lyricism or the verbal dexterity of Eminem and he’s nowhere near as off-the-wall as Tyler, the Creator and he just can’t pull off the pose anywhere near as well as they do. Similarly, he just doesn’t have the imagination or the flow of Lil Wayne or Thugger, who both have made an art of non-sequiturs and ad-libs. They do almost Joycean things to the language and they rap with such joy. CG has never had anything like the same abandon.

This leads into what I think is CG’s biggest problem when rapping, he never really figured out who he is. I’m going to look at legitimately my favorite of his straight rap songs for this, “L.E.S..” His story of this New York girl is really good. Calling out hipster trends in this song adds detail.  “White boys used to trip and send me over a gin / But they busy showin’ off each other Indian friend” is clever and has a fantastic sneer to it and is followed by my favorite CG line of all ” She got ironic tattoos on her back / That ain’t ironic bitch, I love Rugrats.”

However, then we get things like the free association of the next stanza, which has internal rhymes that could have been interesting, but which he ruins by trying too hard with them and with a needless and sort of tame attempt to shock. Similarly, a line like “Our relationship has gotten Sylvester Stallone” is the kind of wordplay that can seem clever in a poor light, but it just doesn’t do anything for the song. It breaks you out of the flow of the song for a not very funny joke.

He just cannot commit in the way of the Arctic Monkeys or the Afghan Whigs to this lifestyle. He uses jokes to create distance and to cover up the fact that he’s not willing to open up in his music. He’s got an image that he builds up of being a loser on the outside, but making up for fucks you miss in high school is not a compelling aesthetic. It’s also a very tightly controlled image. He’s so reticent that there’s nothing to really humanize him. It comes across as a caricature and an unlikable one at that. Even that story at the end of “That Power” feels so iterated on, so polished, so story-told that it loses authenticity. Sometimes, you need something raw. Also, the Asian fetish gets pretty uncomfortable to listen to.

This might have been tempered had I ever watched Community and had that to balance him out, but I’ve never seen a Donald Glover TV show. Actually, I think the only place where I have seen him is in Solo, a movie that I quite liked and a movie that I quite liked Donald Glover in. However, it’s just not enough to build a picture of him separate from his music for me.

As a contrast to this, it’s time to finally get to the other actor-rapper of the mid-2000s, Drake. It’s easy to dislike Drake. There’s the pettiness, the fake tough-guy stuff, the clout chasing and the puffery, but we only see these because of how open he is and it’s really hard to be a superstar in the confessional that is rap if you’re not willing to be open. CG’s music feels like it wants you to like him and that insecurity doesn’t fit in the rap game. Also, Toronto Sadboy is a slightly comical pose, but it’s one that’s easier to get into than CG’s image of being clever, but immature. This is especially true for the Weeknd, but even when Drake does it, it’s more menacing, more dark and most importantly more sexy than CG’s stuff.

Also, Drake is just the better rapper and the better sing-rapper. You could argue that it was close in the Take Care vs. Camp era (although I wouldn’t), but it’s not at all close at this point. Drake has put in the work while Donald Glover has been busy becoming a movie superstar. Every year, Drake tries out new stuff with rap. There isn’t a trend over the past five years that he hasn’t dabbled with and the work shows. 

Even from the beginning though, Drake always felt like the more comfortable rapper and he committed to sing-rapping in the way that CG didn’t. The best song from CG’s first two albums is “Telegraph Ave”. (which I’ll remind Neeharika that I got to see at Telegraph Ave.), and you can see how well he does in the R&B-adjacent space with his songs with Jhené Aiko. He just feels more natural in that zone. Even with “Telegraph Ave.” I feel like it’s the singing that stands out rather than any of his rap and so it’s welcome that is what his focus is on now.

With R&B, he gets to focus more on feeling than on words and yet with “This Is America,” he has made the most meaningful song in his career. He even gets to be visual in “This Is America” and the wonderful “Feels Like Summer” and the upgrade from the Because The Internet screenplay to the very likable Guava Island is clear-cut. He gets to be unambiguously sexy in “Redbone” which the cleverness of rap doesn’t allow and it’s the best music he’s ever made.

He just feels more confident and here than he did before. “Zombies” from Awaken, My Love is a lot of fun and it just didn’t feel like he was comfortable enough to play like this before. This is an older and more mature CG and maybe the time has come for him to put down Childish things.

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