At first, the notion that Childish Gambino is the rapper persona for comedian/actor Donald Glover seems more like a bit of trivia than a compelling layer to his latest album,and first full-length commecial release, CAMP. But as you go, it's that kind of blurring of identity that shapes the entire record. It's hilarious in places, but it's not a joke record. It's full of deep confession, rap-battle bile, bottomless braggadocio and intense self-consciousness -- and these all run up against each, and it's hard to tell when Gambino is being honest and when he's trying to fuck with us.
Opener "Outside" is intimate in its details, like when he tells us about a "Land Before Time toy from Pizza Hut" from his childhood, or how his now estranged cousin was the "one [he] took sink baths with." It's a song that sets up the record perfectly, Gambino as an outsider both in his "white" school and from the drug game that has taken his cousin. The beat itself is fittingly dramatic, with deep rumbling drums and dramatic choirs wailing behind him. All through this record, Gambino struggles not so much to find his way in, but to be okay with being kept out. The charged fuck-off of "Bonfire" is at once a confirmation of his confidence as a rapper and a defensive lashing out at haters. "Told me I was awful and that shit did not phase me," he spits just a few lines before letting you know that if you're not his favorite then, "you can kiss [his] ass: Human Centipede."
All the most compelling moments on CAMP that deal with this outsider status also deal with race. Gambino rails against being "too white" or "not really black." He can't seem to fit with our concept of what black culture in rap is (on the excellent "Backpackers," he claims to be the "only white rapper who can say the N-word"), but he also lashes out at the deep-seeded, subtle racism that can inform our perception of that culture. "You're not 'not racist' because The Wire is in your Netflix queue," he says on "Hold You Down," and the observation, though perhaps obvious, still cuts deep.
But that's not to say that CAMP is bogged down by ham-handed ideas or that it is overly serious. Instead, Gambino's skill comes in delving into these ideas of race and identity with a sharp eye for humor and an impressively versatile flow. He can reference ToeJam and Earl in one breath, and then angrily shout "fuck a backpacker with a rhino's dick" the next, and neither rings false. Some of these songs are also possible bonifide hits. Lead single "Bonfire" is maybe too harsh to catch on, but has the hard beat and impressive verses to stick around. "Fire Fly" is as catchy a song as Gambino offers here, without peeling back any of these thematic complications. "Heartbeat" is likely to be the most successful track, though, as it shows Gambino's dance-club side nicely.
But it also shows a few of the limitations of CAMP. Along with collaborator Ludwig Göransson, Gambino recorded and arranged these beats himself (?uestlove does play drums on closer "That Power"), and the pair prove capable of making a powerful and undeniably professional sound. But as beat makers, they haven't quite struck out on their own. "Heartbeat," despite that odd grinding riff, sounds an awful lot like "Thriller." Other places, like "Outside" and even standouts like "Bonfire" and "Backpackers," feel pulled from Kanye's playbook. "Outside" aligns with Yeezy's own album opener "Dark Fantasy," so much so that it's hard to hear one without the other. "Bonfire" and "Backpackers," though, feel far more distinct. You may think of West bangers like "Power," but there's something unique about these. These beats manage the same size as West without the weighty maximalism, and in that way they feel fresh. Gambino also commits to mixing in R& B hooks (he even sings many of them himself), and shows a skill for crafting a hook that actually continues the verses rather than bookending them. "Hold You Down" and the triumphant "All the Shine" mesh these two sides perfectly, mixing deep worry in the verses with powerfully hopeful choruses.
CAMP is a record that will make you laugh out loud, even when Gambino sometimes tests the limits of his charm (referring to a girl as "crazy and asian: Virginia Tech" will surely rub some the wrong way). But it also raises compelling questions, ones that it prefers to drag into the light rather than answer. The muddling of honesty and persona, of deep pathos and who-gives-a-fuck aggression, make for an album that is tough to pin down. But each permutation of Gambino's character here -- minus the heartbroken misogynist on songs like "Heartbeat" and "Kids" -- is convincing and deeply interesting. CAMP is an imperfect album, to be sure, one that both succeeds on its incongruities and occasionally stumbles on them. But this record makes one thing certain: This isn't an actor rapping, or a comedian taking a piss. Childish Gambino is just a rapper. And, as it turns out, he's a damn fine one.