Think about your most treasured summer camp memories for a second. Bonfires in the woods? Catching fireflies? Camp is the kind of place in which you can discover yourself and your identity; appropriately, on Camp, his first real record as Childish Gambino, the rapper and actor Donald Glover uses those brief, self-defining memories as a loose, overarching concept, out of which he crafts an intricate and, at times, highly impressive and profound statement about his own identity as an artist and a person. At other times, he raps about his dick – self-admittedly a favorite subject. Maybe this is part of Glover’s genius: the man understands what each of the different facets of his audience wants, and he delivers something for each of those factions while remaining true to his ingenuity and identity as a rapper. In an industry where cultivating a tough persona often seems more important than the music itself, Glover stalwartly refuses to explain away his idiosyncrasies (the short shorts, the Grizzly Bear samples, the acting roots, etc); in fact, he often cites all those unusual elements of his career as things that make him better than the pack, because, frankly, they just might.
Camp is a truly diverse record that will both fit within the strict confines of today’s mainstream hip-hop zeitgeist and exist resolutely outside of it – fittingly, because Glover as a person is the same way. The beats (Glover crafts them himself) are truly great: sometimes they’re clubby (see “Heartbeat”); sometimes they broach orchestral indie or ‘80s-y synth samples (“Outside” and “Fire Fly” respectively); he’s quite fond of employing that dubbed-up piano-and-chorus production trope (see “Hold You Down,” “Outside,” “Letter Home”). Glover’s a good enough rapper that he’s never overshadowed by his instrumentation – his delivery is really affecting in how singular and self-assured it is, sometimes intense and intimidating, sometimes thoughtful and ponderous, without ever being boring.
What’s most impressive about Camp, though, is how well Glover knows his audience; his total understanding of to whom he’s catering continually shines through. As a talented rapper who at times employs commercial-sounding beats, he has profound mainstream potential, and he knows it. Songs like “Bonfire” (the record’s first single, obviously) and “Backpackers” are his attempt at breaching MTV hip-hop culture, as he plays into the same lyrical and instrumental slants that made Odd Future overnight mainstream quasi-celebrities. “Bonfire” sees Glover rap about how many girls he gets and how much better he is than other rappers out there (his brilliant turns of phrase might have you briefly convinced), employing more than a couple objectionable pop-culture references. “Made the beat and murdered it / Casey Anthony” seems pretty insensitive, but the shock-rap microgenre Glover’s rather effortlessly playing to here isn’t at all concerned with sensitivity. Elsewhere he gets highly, stunningly self-aware, notably so in “All the Shine.” Glover knows – and says explicitly here – that his raps about his dick and hot girls have been done before, but those are the songs that will get him mainstream attention. “What’s the point of rap if you can’t be yourself, huh?” he asks. Individuality is key on Camp, especially on songs like “All the Shine” and “L.E.S.,” where Glover raps about, of all things, identity, authenticity, and reconciling his own ambitions with those of his family, all the while dropping truly smart and thoughtful verses that are just as disarmingly unique and caustic as those in “Bonfire” and “Backpackers,” just entirely more conscientious.
Camp is Glover’s incontrovertible statement that he can make an identity-seeking record of hipster rap just as well as he can effortlessly garner mainstream adoration, all while maintaining an honest sense of individuality. No matter what kind of hip-hop you’re into – even if you aren’t into hip-hop at all – there’s something on this record for you, something that’s purely Childish Gambino.
Childish Gambino – “L.E.S.”
Stream ‘CAMP’ in full here.