The actor-to-rapper transition has, to our knowledge, never been pulled off successfully. But it might be unfair to categorize Donald Glover in such stark terms.
Glover — current star of “Community” (a part of NBC’s Thursday-night comedy lineup), former “30 Rock” writer, viral video creator, all-around handsome dude — raps under the name of Childish Gambino. And he’s pretty good.
Glover’s rhymes penned as Gambino have an intricate dexterity to them, with knotted schemes and a writer’s knack for making language pliant.
He’s also got an ear for beats, which can make as much difference for a rapper as his verses. favouring sparse, unconventional arrangements and choral loops used like percussion, Gambino tends to fill the holes in his production with manic energy. For what I’m talking about, check out songs like “Freaks and Geeks” and his newest single, “Bonfire” (the video for which is below).
It’s fun to see an artist airing out his id, and that’s pretty much Gambino to Glover.
With his latest effort, “Camp,” poised to drop on November 15, Gambino’s been more visible recently. As such, his flaws have also started to emerge, and they’re worth calling attention to in the hopes that Glover will err more toward the strengths of his project.
Take “Bonfire.” Riding a great beat and a mean streak, Gambino drops in with some sort of ugly verses, nearly shouting in a hoarse and ragged voice. I like his deeper cadence better than the airy chirp he favoured in his earlier work; it’s just that, when he marries that croaking flow to the nastiness, he starts to sound derivative of Tyler, the Creator.
As strange as it is to think that Tyler might be visible enough to have artists cribbing from him, he’s certainly done well with his deranged persona. And Glover’s been doing this longer than Tyler has, so it’s hard to point the finger like that.
Regardless, it can be a bad look. Gambino’s at his best when he raps with a hot urgency and loses himself inside the gaps of his production, rather than pummelling them slowly like Tyler does. I know the dick-schtick is part of his persona, and at times he does it as well as anyone, using the whole trope as a projection of insecurity and manhood under duress. Other times, though? It can seem a little misogynistic.
Also, as he demonstrated in a live radio performance this morning, Glover can unleash a variety of nuanced flows when he so chooses, even channeling Eminem at one point, stutter-stepping through the beat like a running back.
Either way, it’s great to see a guy like Donald Glover making intriguing music that sounds labored over. This clearly isn’t a tossed-off play for branding purposes.
In fact, sometimes, in his deepest dives into the esoterica of rap, Gambino can get too meta, so that listeners without a thorough knowledge of hip-hop might be a little confused by all the clowning. Some have excused Gambino as an elaborate joke, but the whole thing’s too well done and earnest to be a gag.
And the quality makes it even more essential that Glover not fall into these traps.
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