The public personality of Donald Glover has shifted quite dramatically since he was first making appearances in kooky independent comedies and nailing credits for penning episodes of 30 Rock. Glover’s extremely accesible studio debut, Camp, earned itself a lot of derision from hip-hop fans for being something like Rap LiteTM. Admittedly the release was a little too given over to punchline rhymes and gratuitous pop culture references. However, the album was also an autobiographical accomplishment, a sort of white man’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Glover often gets lumped with Drake as an overly emotional rapper made to appeal to the hipster prep crowd.
The press coverage of Gambino is doing a good job of backing that classification up. In most interviews, Childish looks pretty miserable. In a late-night Instagram confessional, he ran off a deck of ‘deep fears’ flashcards scrawled on hotel stationary. It’s clear that he’s not in a good place, and he wants you to know it. The album cover for Because The Internet features a photo of Donald Glover that somehow portrays him as stoned and miserable all at once. So, let’s see what he has to say.
After coming down off of a deep appreciation of Camp, I’ve been approaching Because The Internet with a deep skepticism, partly because of Glover’s arguably contrived press personality, and partly because of the thin conceit that ties the new album together. Perhaps I was naive to expect a concept album that spoke intelligently about loneliness, fear, and growing up with the Internet. Either way, that’s not what I got. It seems that the songs are, generally, pretty much unrelated to the titles, which themselves do have some theme. Perhaps in time I’ll begin to unpack some grand overarching schema that ties it all together, but for now I’m not hearing much thematic cohesion in terms of the Internet.
Something that Gambino does keep coming back to is loneliness however. Listening to Shadows for example, we’re talking about a girl that’s not feeling it as much as he is: “email denied, talk to me baby”. The same goes for Telegraph Ave, where we’re sitting in on a little tableau as Gambino drives into Oakland to see his sweetheart, and spits over a hearthrobby ballad on the radio. It’s interesting, sure. Glover’s stacking up layers on the story that he wants to tell. That’s when Glover’s at his best, if I’m honest: when he’s deconstructing. For instance, in Sweatpants he makes a show out of pulling apart the FX drops that are pretty common these days. When Childish stops the spin and pedantically points out that Fiskers don’t actually make the revving noise that he’s dropping into the mix, he’s really saying something. However, ten seconds later he’s dropping another punchline: “white neighbourhood OKKK…”.
The best part of this album is when Gambino fully embraces the misery that he keeps talking about, rather than falling back on the broken sweetheart themes. No Exit, Flight of the Navigator, and Zealots of Stockholm all deliver some actual gritty pathos. Zealots starts out with some raw shout outs to Glover’s parents; he hopes he’s a good son. Then, the air gets sucked out of the room at the 1:30 mark and we get some dark stuff. The refrain is so distorted and tinny it almost sounds like a Mogadishu Adhan, and Childish is machine-gunning questions about life and death in between references to jaded party boy antics. Then, we finally get what we’ve been waiting for as the hook rings out: “Is it real because it’s online?”. I feel like Zealots is one of the only tracks where Glover is gloriously on message.
I’m aware that the release of Because The Internet coincides with the release of a screenplay that Glover wrote, that weaves into the story that he’s telling on the record. Perhaps the secrets that tie this whole album are to be found in that screenplay, but I’m one of those old-fashioned types who thinks an album should speak for itself. Childish has produced some truly incredible tracks here, but he’s at his best when he’s being deconstructive, self-referential, and now that he appears to be depressed, his most miserable tracks are his best. If only he could stop making detours into cheap punchline rhymes and Hallmark lovesick verses.