out on 7.4
Immediately, the track list of Royalty stands out. There are guest rappers; Chilidish Gambino is not listed as the producer on every track. Clearly, Donald Glover has chosen to show us something that we didn’t see on Camp. Namely, he quite enjoys working with other hip-hop artists, especially good ones. And also Beck.
On his first LP, Glover proudly gave life to his concept album with “no cosign,” as he brags on “We ain’t them,” but all save two of the songs on Royalty feature another producer or rapper. As I took notes during my first play of the tape, I kept crossing out the phrase, “best guest verse,” and giving it to each new song as they came up. Glover has somehow managed to coax great verses out of a truly diverse cast of mc’s. Everyone from the obscure West-coast rapper Nipsey Hussle to the cerebral Ab-Soul to Beck to RZA seems to step up their game to give the former 30 Rock writer an respect-affirming ensemble of coconspirators.
“American Royalty,” for instance, makes brilliant use of a brass section and a Wu-Tang Clansman. The Hypnotic Brass Orchestra delivers a lush sound that picks up steam for first minute and a half of the song before Glover seamlessly folds the track out into a more conventional hip-hop beat. At 1:22, there’s a pause behind RZA so as to let him deliver the line, “you know how the Wu go,” a cappella. The bass drops on the next count, then a shimmering synth sample on the next, then Glover’s nasally voice takes off. It feels as if RZA cooks the track full of energy in the first half so that Gambino can run away with it on the second verse—and he does, with the Wu Tang member uttering “go” as if encourage Glover through the whole verse.
Interestingly, Beck also brings this sort of “I’ve got your back,” attitude to his track, and Glover similarly employs it well. The piano and tambourine driven beat, co produced by Beck and Glover, seems like it would fit comfortably in his vast catalogue of sound, somewhere between Guero and The Information —– the latter of which was the last time Beck gave us a sampling of the flow that “Loser” made famous. His verse has that same sort of almost-tripping-over-itself, spit-out feel. “Convict monotonous, verdict thoughtless,” he sputters in the middle of his verse, blithely attacking critics who would criticize anything (“You draw commas on the eyes of madonnas”).
As enjoyable as Beck’s verse is, it also demonstrates the dangers of having great guests on your album/mixtape. Frankly, his is much more interesting than either of Glover’s, and it makes his style seem very pedestrian. “I used to rap about nothin’, now I rap about nothin’ / But that nothin’ was somethin’ that ain’t nobody was bumpin’.” He goes for the same sort of absurd, stumbling flow of ideas that Beck achieves with apparent ease, but it comes off almost as childish in Glover’s voice.
Maybe I’m just drawing commas here, but I found myself feeling the same way at various points all over the album. On “Unnecessary,” his track with two Black Hippy crew members, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, I find myself skipping through or zoning out during Glover’s first verse, and then the guest spots just make me want to flip over to Habits and Contradictions or Control System.
Though Glover has a knack for writing catchy beats and lines, that’s not always an adjective of praise. He delivers the line, “Wu tang generator name, I’m a shogun” with a particular emphasis that makes it stick in my memory. I love how Glover drags the “n” and “g” sounds across the phrases to give the line phonetic cohesion, but the more that line popped up in my head, the more my head involuntarily said to the supposed shogun, “No, you’re not.”
I could give countless examples from my time listening to Royalty of how a song would give me great pleasure one time I heard it, then annoy me very much the next. Glover switches from braggadocio-filled moods of contentment to complaining with a Drake-like jadedness towards fame and material achievement (an attitude enhanced by long-time Drake producer, Boi-1da’s two-track presence on the tape). On most free mixtapes, it’s easy to overlook these faults, but the sheer amount of quality guests assembled for Royalty suggests that Glover had his sights set a bit higher. As the mixtape teetered between impressive and annoying, it became more and more clear that Childish Gambino may not yet be deserving of such a stellar supporting ensemble, but he’s getting there. [B-] –– Matt Conover