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 penultimate track”That Power,” the rapper encourages 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 in the Wu-Name Generator, deserves some 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, mocked by the white kids who called him an Oreo. Those charges followed him into his music career. On the lovely, 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.” “Backpackers” is inspired by the mixed reception Glover-as-Gambino received from the true-school-rap-nerd crowd when he performed at Rock the Bells 2011. It’s the only time here when he wants to be the bully of the block, not the victim.Self-produced, Camp has a melancholic sound that apparently draws from pre-Graduation Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. He often sings the hooks, sometimes in a pained high register reminiscent of Patrick Stump, other times in a soft romantic croon reminiscent of Drake. Composer Ludwig Göransson adds string arrangements that unsubtly underline the lyrics’ adolescent angst, though there are some nice touches like “Outside,” where the choral backing voices 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. But Childish Gambino justifies his schoolyard scraps by bragging about his Hollywood success and how he got to meet Jay-Z: On “You See Me,” he boasts, “If I’m a faggot, spell it right / I got more than two ‘G’s,” 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 who likes Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens isn’t unique anymore. He’s a decent rapper, but too often offers up clumsy groaners: “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 his willingness to overshare his neuroses makes him a truly rare bird. 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 as much violence as they receive. Glover freely admits that all he can give in return is his wounded heart.