Childish Gambino’s Camp is a bit of a mess. It veers wildly from poignant emotions to maudlin histrionics, often in the same song. On the album’s penultimate track, “That Power,” Childish Gambino encourages the Freaks and Geeks comparisons with a poem about serenading his childhood crush at the end of summer camp, that annual ritual of pubescent awkwardness, only to be mocked by her and her friends. It will have you recoiling in sympathetic embarrassment and reaching for the Kleenex at the same time. “I wish I could say this is a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man, more cynical, hardened, mature and shit,” he says. “The truth is that I got on the bus a boy, and never got off the bus.”
Yet Donald Glover, the standup comedian and Community actor who became Childish Gambino after entering his name into the WuName Generator website, deserves credit for exposing the tensions that have defined his life. He talks about being bullied in his neighborhood for not being black enough; and then, when his parents enrolled him in prep school, by the white kids who called him an Oreo. Those charges followed him into his music career. On the lovely and fragile “Hold You Down,” he rues, “This one kid said something that was really bad/ He said I wasn’t black enough because I had a dad.” A mixed reception from the true-school rap nerds that saw him at Rock the Bells 2011 inspires the venomous “Backpackers.” It’s the only time on Camp when Childish Gambino wants to be the bully of the block, not the victim.
Camp has a melancholic sound seemingly inspired by pre-Graduation Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. He often sings the hooks, sometimes in a pained high register like Patrick Stump, other times in a soft romantic croon reminiscent of Drake. Meanwhile, composer Ludwig Göransson adds string arrangements that underline Childish Gambino’s adolescent angst with little care for subtlety. There are some nice touches like “Outside,” where the choral backing voices on “Outside” seem transposed from 60s sunshine-poppers The Fifth Dimension.
With its air of resignation, Camp hearkens to the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” a mid-90s classic about masculine vulnerability in the age of gangsta rap. The Pharcyde found solace by following their goofy muse, no matter the cost. Childish Gambino justifies his schoolyard scraps by bragging about his Hollywood success and meeting Jay-Z. On “You See Me,” he says, “If I’m a faggot, spell it right/ I got more than two Gs,” then reveals a sexual fetish for Asian women that comes perilously close to racial tokenism. He says he’s an outsider, but in the age of TV on the Radio being a nerdy black hipster that likes Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens isn’t unique anymore. He’s a decent but clumsy rapper, and he sometimes offers up groaners like “Bonfire’s,” “You can fuckin’ kiss my ass/ Human centipede.” Then again, who doesn’t rely on the hashtag-rap model these days?
We can shake our heads at the notion that becoming a TV sitcom star will ease childhood trauma, and laugh at Childish Gambino’s aspirations to Otherness. Yet it’s his willingness to overshare his neuroses that truly makes him a rare bird. It’s telling that he doesn’t have any guests on Camp; few rappers have portrayed themselves as the broken souls of thug-ism with such candor. Even flamboyantly sensitive dudes like Lil B and Tyler, the Creator claim improbably that they can dish out any violence they receive. Childish Gambino freely admits that all he can give in return is his wounded heart.