Independence Day was commemorated in more than one way by comedian/writer/actor/rapper extraordinaire Donald Glover. With the release of his new mixtape, ROYALTY, Glover’s rap alter ego, Childish Gambino, celebrates an independence from his light-hearted jokester roots. ROYALTY declares a new Gambino that fans better digest quickly, lest they be left in his swag-laden wake.
The resulting release is short on tongue-in-cheek literary references but packed to the gills with guest lyricists, producers, and hard-edged, often hook-less material. Gambino is eager to demonstrate that hip hop is something he could pursue as a life path, should he so choose. Often derided for his choice of lyrical focus, Gambino keeps his audience at a distance, going as far as asking them abruptly, to turn off his records and/or shut the hell up.
Gambino has solid rap chops — his verses often provide the oasis on a track full of lesser guests — but that doesn’t prevent him from suffering from building an entire track off of a weak premise (and to be frank, an awful rhyme scheme/central message to a track) in “Unnecessary.” It is not entirely clear where Gambino is headed by frivolously repeating the various unnecessary facets of being a comedian/rapper/television star, giving way to a frustrating level of aimless material. The track provides a deep valley for the record and is far below par for what is expected of Glover’s wit.
Continuing with that theme, on preceding track “Black Faces” Gambino would like to insist “[he] and Nipsey [Hussle] [are] on some grown [up] shit” but really they simply come across as a couple of hungry kids playing hip hop. Glover has always been sensitive to what comes across his @mentions feed on twitter. Undoubtedly, it is this level of self-awareness and neuroticism that makes Glover who he is; both sensitive and nerdy while simultaneously acting overblown and braggadocios. In fact this theme is a rather common vein in modern hip hop. However, if Glover aspires to be like Jay-Z, ?uestlove or any of the other icons he references, Gambino needs to find a better middle ground. Act like you’ve been there before, man.
A benefit the mixtape format offers Glover is to work out his various kinks (emotional or otherwise.) Many of these tracks would benefit from a singular vision, like the one prevalent throughout previous release CAMP, but not everything on ROYALTY belongs under this umbrella, allowing Glover to cut his teeth deeper into his rap aspirations. The best example of this is the almost scene-stealing potential of what I assume was intended to be the cornerstone of ROYALTY… but unfortunately for inexperienced producer-hat wearing Gambino, even a feature spot by Wu-Tang vet RZA couldn’t save “American Gangster.” Coincidentally enough, it is RZA’s entrance that derails the track. Right off the bat his flow slams the brakes on an incredible instrumental build courtesy of the Hypnotic Brass Orchestra. If Glover wants to keep his prized new “prod.” tag, he’ll have to learn to pull better performances out of his revolving door cast of guest spots.
Elsewhere on ROYALTY, simple fixes are all that are required to take the album the extra step, which again, is the point of a mixtape. That extra ten percent between good to great is always a challenge, and the point of Gambino’s hard touring and heavy output are to prove he has what it takes to survive in this game. A more involved touch is all that’s keeping “Shoulda Known” from a Top 10 Gambino track. “Doing sew sew, like a seamstress.” Really? That’s all you’ve got, Donald? Sample the Drive soundtrack all you want, no one believes you’re in the 1%.
As we continue through the album, extra kudos go to “Silk Pillow” a welcome cross-section of Childish Gambino’s talents if there has ever been one. Anyone who can draw that kind of performance out of Beck definitely deserves some quality attention. A little needed proof that when Gambino is present in a track, he can really bring it home. Perfectly placed to keep ROYALTY flowing, given previous track “Toxic” is predisposed to (purposely) weird sampling and some overly indulgent interplay between Gambino and manic comedy rapper Danny Brown. Fortunately, it is easy enough to scratch this one off the drawing board and head to greener pastures.
It will be refreshing to CAMP enthusiasts knowing that Gambino is still at his best during prolonged moments of raw emotion. “Wonderful,” with choruses provided by the exquisite vocal talents of newcomer Josh Osha, (as opposed to the high, pitchy renditions from Glover that listeners have grown accustomed to) fits splendidly in the Childish catalog and will indeed be one of the singles with the most legs to come out of ROYALTY.
The most important statement to take from ROYALTY is that we now have a more mature but not necessarily better-off Gambino. He is obviously struggling with his place in life. As he says on highlight track “We Ain’t Them” — “Back of my mind, I hope the show gets cancelled. Maybe then I can focus.” referring to his cult favorite sitcom Community — a line no fan of Glover’s is sure to take lightly. Through ROYALTY Gambino is at his most consistent, yet proving himself will always remain his (ultimately unattainable) goal. He attempts to match pace and style with each of his guests, not always successfully, but Gambino is an audibly more confident and progressive performer because of it.