Album review: Childish Gambino, “Because The Internet”By Dylan Owens | December 9th, 2013 | 2 comments
“Who am I?”
Childish Gambino starts his sophomore album, “Because The Internet,” with that whopper of a question. For him, it’s an especially valid one. First stand-up comedian, then actor and now rapper, Donald Glover has at least had a hard time keeping his business cards straight.
On his sophomore LP, he further muddies his ever-changing M.O., breaking from the predominantly goofball meme rap of 2011′s “Camp” in favor of darker splashes. The resulting music is without question more interesting and ambitious than “Camp,” with elements of jazz and R&B blended into the indie hip-hop Gambino is known for. It’s also something of a disjointed mess, with nineteen tracks separated into five distinct suites connected only by supplemental materials.
Childish Gambino released a short film and a screenplay in the weeks leading up to the release of “Because The Internet” to give listeners advance insight into the album. For dedicated listeners, these materials are a must to get the most of the album. Or is that the other way around? After reading through the screenplay, which instructs the reader to play the tracks off the album at certain points in the action, you’d be forgiven for thinking “Because The Internet” the album is supplemental to “Because The Internet” the film.
In the age of Spotify and individual song downloads, this a lot to ask of listeners. Glover is no doubt aware. But if you want to have any shot at understanding why there’s a song about Worldstar Hip-Hop between a brag track (“Crawl”) and an instrumental prelude (“Dial-Up”), them’s the breaks.
Barriers to understanding aside, the album is as much “Camp” as it is the polar opposite. Tracks like “The Worst Guys” and “Sweatpants” retain Glover’s punchline-a-line wordplay, from the admittedly clever “I got a penthouse on both coasts, pH balance”) to the downright unfortunate (“Bring a girlfriend, man trouble when I see her / Er er er er, onomatopoeia”) and everything in between (“Tia and Tamara in my bed, I’m a smart guy / I ain’t fuckin with you niggas like apartheid”).
Still, Childish Gambino sounds much more confident than he did on “Camp.” He’s mastered his flow, a steady, straight-faced chant liable to morph on any given bar and back again the next. “Sweatpants” has him sampling Kendrick Lamar’s panicked uptalk flows; on “WORLDSTAR,” he tries on a clipped Southern flow. Glover even floats a few falsettos on a few jazzy highlights like “Urn” and the Thundercat-produced “Shadows,” adding one more line to his already expansive resume.
After a sullen and off-putting middle third that serves as the story’s downward spiral, the album ends with two thematic tracks, “Earth: The Oldest Computer” and “Life: The Biggest Troll.” The tracks conclude the album on a swell—via a house beat in “Earth” and some standard hip-hop 808′s on “Life”—twinged with Snapchat-era existentialism, describing existence the most appropriate way possible today: via internet terminology. “Life’s the biggest troll but the joke is on us,” Glover raps to end the album, “Yeah, the joke’s you showed up.”
The point being: as this is a euphemism of a bring-it-all-home moment, so has the internet become a euphemism for life. But “Because The Internet”‘s grand statement is weakened by its premise. Using internet culture to navigate his “Who Am I?” existential crisis is novel and funny, but it also mitigates the severity of the situation and steers everything into cheese-ballery. “It’s really hard to even talk about the internet without seeming instantly corny,” Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig said to Pitchfork in an interview earlier this year. ”Because The Internet” does well considering the subject matter, probably because as we heard in “Camp,” Glover has absolutely no qualms with corniness. He’s the rare rapper unashamed to take off his cool; to make an album about going to camp as a kid, or the internet, or talk about the time he kissed a boy. Glover’s follow-up hones in on that unique gameness for risk and establishes Childish Gambino as a project to watch—even as it breaks its opening question wide open.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTAR HIP-HOP.