Image is everything. Which may explain why Childish Gambino has never quite had the credibility in the hip-hop community that perhaps he should. There’s none of the swagger and bravado of Jay-Z, none of the insanity and narcissism of Kanye West, and there’s no glamorous backstory involving drugs or crime.
Instead, self-described nerd (“the only black kid at a Sufjan gig” as he once rapped) Donald Glover is best known as a comedian and actor, who famously coined the name of his rapper alter-ego by consulting an online Wu Tang name generator. So there’s a definite sense of repackaging Gambino as a ‘serious artist’ on Because The Internet, from the photo of Glover moodily gazing out from the cover to the 74 page ‘screenplay’ that he wrote to accompany the record.
Because The Internet is certainly a big step up in ambition from Camp, his 2011 debut, with Glover producing much of the album himself (with regular collaborator Ludwig Goransson lending a hand on a few tracks). It’s big, messy and sprawling, and sometimes it threatens to topple under the weight of its own ambitions. Yet Glover’s impressive delivery and exploration of dark themes keep one listening, even when the pace starts to flag.
As anyone who’s seen Glover’s recent outpourings on Instagram about fear, insecurity and depression will know, much of Because The Internet is pretty introspective. It tells the tale of ‘The Boy’ (the subject of the aforementioned screenplay) who, after a period at summer camp, spends his days in his father’s mansion trolling celebrities online and holding parties, and eventually ends up selling drugs to make a living. Hence there are references to threesomes where “I’m nervous as fuck and could not get it up” on The Worst Guys and stories of filling the mansion with partying teenagers, yet still feeling alone and alienated.
Criticism was levelled at Gambino’s earlier material, specifically concerning the technical quality of his rapping. Such criticism won’t fly with the material on this record, with tracks like Sweatpants and The Party offering head-spinningly rapid-fire raps over some dark, compelling beats. His radio-friendlier side is highlighted on the breezy 3005 and the summery, funky Shadows. The tone though is more dictated by the claustrophobic opening beats of Crawl or the menacing, hazy growl that soundtracks No Exit.
There are also moments, particularly in the mid-section, where it all goes very strange indeed. On Zealots of Stockholm (Free Information), Gambino quickly moves from smooth, soulful crooning to some robotic rapping as computerised sound effects schreech and squeal underneath him, while Worldstar sees an ’80s style saxophone solo bring the song to a close.
Although this remains very much Gambino’s vision, there are a number of guest stars including the hotly tipped Chance The Rapper, Azealia Banks and, most notably, Jhené Aiko who contributes vocals to perhaps the brightest, most optimistic song on the album, Pink Toes. In addition, Glover himself often sounds like a guest star on his own album, debuting a smooth singing voice previously unheard before through much of the mid-section of the record. It’s an intriguing new development, hinting that he could well see himself as the next Frank Ocean.
Because The Internet can be a difficult listen at times, but it’s well worth sticking with. With no notable ‘singles’, it’s designed to be sat down and listened to through the whole of its running time (preferably with the accompanying screenplay in hand). If the effort’s put in, Childish Gambino could well eventually earn that elusive credibility.