Childish Gambino a.k.a. Community actor Donald Glover, combines a foul-mouthed id with a 30 Rock-honed gift for referential humor. "While y'all niggas masturbate, I'm in that Ariel Pink," Glover spits on "Freaks and Geeks." In execution, though, he's run into a few problems. While striving to be more inclusive, Glover's rhymes are as reductive toward women — especially Asian women, whose mentions in his songs at first sounded like another note of college-kid broad-mindedness but quickly turned into a creepy, fetishistic tic — as those of the mainstream rappers to whom he sets himself up as antidote. Another trouble is that the mainstream itself has grown in a way that renders Childish Gambino somewhat redundant. Artists like Drake, Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and even latest SPIN Essentials honoree Miguel have already shown there's no longer a contradiction between the rap and R&B worlds and the realm of Jamie xx, Coachella, Beach House, or "that art shit, that smart shit." And they did it without Childish Gambino's tiresome chip on his shoulder: Glover reminds us of his loser status so often we start to believe him.
All of which only makes Glover's recently surfaced collaboration with Beck all the more improbable. On paper, "Silk Pillow" brings together a couple brainy, unaffected outsiders, but again, it's a better look in theory than in practice. A co-production between the two artists, the track has a superficial sumptuousness, as dusty indie-dude keyboards give way to thick electro-house synths over an ambling drum loop. Beck, in a rare rapping appearance since 2006's The Information, delivers some accusatory free-association involving anacondas, dopplegangers, and nirvanas. It's a strangely out-of-time verse, with the mention of "anacondas" the main link to a Childish Gambino segment that checks off too many of Glover's familiar boxes: awkward self-aggrandizement, boozing, douchey observations on the opposite sex. "I used to rap about nothing / Now I rap about nothing / But that nothing was something that ain't nobody was bumping," Glover raps. Sure, there's a welcome non sequitur involving Brazilian pop star Xuxa, but when you're echoing Wale echoing Seinfeld, you might not be so much more advanced than the other guys as the fact you're working with the wizard behind Odelay would appear to suggest. Beck's far better off being passive aggressive with Jack White.