How does one even begin a Childish Gambino album review? If you’re living under a rock, I guess it’s important to start out by acknowledging that Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) isn’t just a rapper. He’s a multitalented pop culture icon, with notable success as a writer, actor, comedian and producer. Members of his cult-like following will point to his role as Troy on “Community” and his studio debut “Camp” as peaks of his creative achievement thus far. Fans of Childish Gambino the rapper tend to praise his humorous, cartoonish wordplay and varying subject matter. On “Camp,” he would address sociology of race and factions within black culture in one song only to humorously and obscenely detail his most outlandish sexual fantasies in the next.
Gambino’s newest project, “Because The Internet,” on the other hand, may surprise fans in that it is nothing like “Camp.” “BTI” features more complex production, abstract lyricism, layered themes and plenty of seemingly random skits. Simply put, it’s much more serious and a lot weirder than his past work. Get over it. Listeners will quickly find that this project takes a bit of effort to fully “get.” The wordplay doesn’t make much sense at first. The music seems disjointed, with plenty of skits and random beat-changes. Upon first listen, in fact, it seems like Gambino doesn’t actually tell us anything directly. After listening to “Camp” for the first time, the message is clear: “This is why it’s difficult to grow up as a ‘nerd’ when society demands that black males conform to certain stereotypes.” Is this an important theme? Sure. It’s also incredibly easy to deduce, though.
“BTI,” however, is a bit different. In addition to the abstractness of the actual album, the project comes with a screenplay for a story that accompanies the music, and this script helps tremendously with understanding everything. Now, if you’re a busy college student or a working professional who doesn’t have time to read an entire screenplay, fear not. It’s very possible to understand “BTI’s” themes without delving too far into the written story. It’s just important to listen closely.
When one listens closely, the first thing he or she should notice is the prevalence of Internet lingo. Hashtags, memes and website titles, scattered amongst mildly braggadocious lyrics, proliferate much of the first half of the album, almost as if to replicate the general vibe of the Internet’s subculture. Everything seems disjointed and there is no real connection from metaphor to metaphor. Continuity, with the exception of a recurring yet baseless assertion of effortless superiority, seems entirely absent. Upon first listen, it’s as if someone foreign to the Internet were suddenly exposed to the worst aspects of YouTube comments, 4Chan’s Random board and the front page of WorldStarHipHop.com all at once. Nothing makes much sense, attention spans are short and everyone just seems kind of mean.
When one listens deeper, however, Gambino can be seen to be delivering a rather strong message throughout all this confusion and contradiction. This is perhaps best explained on the third track, “Worldstar,” which references the video site. On “Worldstar,” we hear arrogant lyrics, a ratchet beat and a clip from a notorious Worldstar fight, where one fighter is beaten down to the sound of a crowd cheering and chanting “Worldstar.” The clip ends with Gambino crooning about his desire to be a world star, yet not wanting to be on Worldstar.
The notion that Gambino is arrogant enough to cheer at the beating of another yet secretly scared of being in the ring himself begins to hint at the album’s central theme. While Gambino expresses excitement at the adrenaline that the Internet, a party or other hedonistic pleasures can provide, he finds no fulfillment in such small matters, and this lack of fulfillment terrifies him. As the album progresses, this theme becomes obvious. This is perhaps best described on “Earth,” where Gambino sings, “I don’t wanna see an era / I just wanna live forever.”
Sonically and lyrically, “BTI” seems weird and disjointed at first. Once you get past that, though, it’s kind of a masterpiece. Creatively and thematically, no hip-hop album has ever dealt with existentialism and the absurd like this one does. Check it out.
Contact Kevin Costello at [email protected]